PostHeaderIcon Uncertainty is Certain (the 4th Law)

Plans are not crystal balls. They are at best a logical and reasonable perspective of the future but no more. Every project involves uncertainty and uncertainty implies risk. And there is no such thing as a risk-free project. I call this the Fourth Law of project management.

All of which has a serious implication for project managers – the need to properly account for risk. The fact that plans are incomplete views of the future means they are always at least slightly wrong. Even if we correctly identify all the tasks and activities to be performed, errors will always exist in assumptions, duration and work estimates, task dependencies and so on.

Most project managers appear to ignore most risks (witness the lack of risk readiness as evidence) . Yet threats can and do suddenly materialize. But sudden does not necessarily mean unpredictable. Experience and a little structured thinking can expose potential threats that we can get ourselves prepared for:

5 Essential Steps to Managing Risk

1 – Get Prepared

  • Determine how complex your project is and how much unmanaged uncertainty you (and the project sponsor) can tolerate, i.e. how important is risk management for your project? Then decide on the process you will use and brief your core team accordingly (risk management is not a solo effort).

2 – Identify Risks

  • Review project documentation – business case, SOW, charter, plans (WBS especially) and assumptions to seek out sources of uncertainty, potential error and change. Wear the hat of Murphy – “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Remember, this involves core team members, not just the PM.

3 – Assess Risks

  • Evaluate each risk for (a) the likelihood of the risk occurring and (b) the potential impact to the project if the risk does occur. Rate the severity of each risk on these two dimensions. High likelihood and high impact means for those risks at least, response plans will be a necessity.

4 – Develop Risk Response Plans

  • Evaluate alternative response strategies. Ask these questions: How could you avoid the risk? How could you reduce likelihood? How could you reduce impact? How could you transfer the risk to another party? Could you accept the risk with a just-in-case contingency or backup plan? If so, how would it work?

5 – Monitor Risks

  • As the project progresses, risk monitoring should be a regular item on the agenda, week after week. Have any risks occurred? Are the response plans working? What has changed that might cause new risks?

These are the essentials. Large complex programs will take these steps to a very deep and sophisticated level. But even the simplest of projects will benefit from the same basic steps. Scalability, as ever in project management, is the key.

Here’s a good way to think about all this-

Ignoring project risks is the first and biggest risk to the project.

(See all 5 Laws summarized in The 5 Laws of Effective Project Management)

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