How to manage project risk with constant uncertainty
Blog posted by: Ana O’Sullivan – project management expert, 21 May 2021.
Uncertainty in projects has been a constant theme for some time – maybe always. So, how do you keep motivated to react to the unknown and plan for anything under the sun that might happen?
In normal times (unlike now) PRINCE2® and Agile methods offer processes to periodically review, evaluate and manage risk. Using these approaches helps you anticipate risk, because you have experienced and logged previous risks, making new risks more predictable.
For example, with an IT systems change you know there will be migration issues, resourcing problems, and so on.
However, managing risk in the current pandemic situation is a lot more random, especially if you’re in the middle of project delivery lasting 12-18 months. This means constantly planning for the ramifications of constant change and, while PRINCE2 provides a good framework, you need to increase the regularity of reviews.
Project planning and risk management in the latest “new normal”
Today, the risk role in projects has become more permanent. Engaging with risk partners is happening a lot earlier and they are often now fully-fledged members of the project team whereas they operated on a consultancy basis before. This means engaging with the business holistically from the beginning and anticipating risks to understand what might impact the project.
In a sector like financial services, regulation dictates risk as a defined role. However, in other organizations where it’s not a solidified position there could be a forum of people from across the business to get consensus and raise the visibility of risk.
However, when there is somebody responsible for risk, their lower threshold of tolerance for it can become a blocker. So, project managers’ key task is to engage with these professionals and have a meaningful conversation. By doing the analysis upfront, they can question the likelihood of a particular risk being realized.
This is important, as with risk comes opportunity and an organization needs to do business while keeping an eye on accountability. You can’t just close projects because of risk because, for every project closed, your competitors could be outstripping you.
Emerging risks at a time of pandemic
The past year of operating during the uncertainty of Covid-19 has brought a number of new risks to light:
- Working from home/remotely: holding multiple, online video calls across the day puts some strain on communications, especially first meetings with people you don’t know. Without human contact, it can be difficult to develop rapport.
- Remote working technology: when it fails, it slows you down and reduces productivity.
- Training new starters: delivering training to someone remotely is harder and takes more time.
- Meeting deadlines: fatigue and exhaustion among employees is having an effect on hitting project deadlines.
- Appraising performance: measuring people’s performance is more difficult when their work objectives are balanced with other issues such as home schooling or becoming ill. This needs handling with empathy while still finding ways to get a job done.
- Maintaining motivation: if people are struggling, some will withdraw rather than share it with their manager.
Uncertainty as a fact of life
There has to be a degree of acceptance that uncertainty is the new normal. And this needs to come from the top: senior managers ensuring that their companies have a strategy and policy for risk that fits the reality.
The only way people will feel able to embrace this new normal is if companies acknowledge it and create a framework for them to work better.
So, demanding ridiculous targets and pushing people hard is not sustainable. Therefore, as well as making objectives achievable, employees need more up-to-date guidance on best practice; training them in what works best in project management to ensure their skills and ability to adapt is up to speed.
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