risk is not just a board game
I am currently teaching a course in the Mohawk College and CARA Research Administration Certificate program. As part of this, I’ve been writing essays around each week’s discussion topic, in response to the discussions and reflections by the students. The next of these is on the topic of risk management in project.
In project management, risk is defined as an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project’s objectives (PMBOK). Either an opportunity or a threat, these events will change the potential project outcome, so we need to consider these when planning, and put some thought (and perhaps some effort) into either reducing the threats or capitalizing on the opportunities.
It is important to be clear with the language of risk in project management, where a risk can be positive (opportunity) or negative (threat or challenge). It is different than how the term risk is used in ethics management (where a risk is always negative, as compared to a benefit). Risk management approaches can be seen as both approaches to minimizing threats to project success, and ways to maximize opportunities for projects to be successful, which is the goal of project management.
Where’s the team? Within research administration projects, such as new tool development and implementation or event management and delivery, change in personnel is an often-overlooked threat to the project. Teams are typically very small (sometimes just one person), and so the absence of someone, even for a short period, or the overburdening of team members can threaten the success of the project. Good documentation can help mitigate this threat, but rarely can good notes replace the mind and memory of the person doing the work.
Is your glass half full or half empty? Within most challenges, we can explore possible opportunities that are created. A team member leaving is a challenge, but that can also mean an opportunity for the team – an advancement opportunity for someone, some new eyes on the project, even (in desperate times) a welcome relief within the budget as overall costs go down for a period of time. At the same time, a significant new funding award (opportunity) can bring with it challenges – ramping up of staff members, negotiating and finalizing collaborative agreements, the research work itself with all its inherent uncertainty. If we consider how this event changes things in our project or work, we can address the consequences and impact and keep our projects on track.
Chasing the dream. Interestingly, the pursuit of opportunities can become distracting and disruptive, creating a strange version of a threat (we might call this “opportunity creep”). If teams become determined to pursue opportunities that require considerable resources but with little or unknown likelihood of success, the overall objectives of the project can get lost in the chase for the new thing. Scope management and control is important here, to control such progressive elaboration.
Don’t panic. Lack of planning and therefore lack of a response plan for a risk event can sometimes lead to panic within the project. In trying to respond to the risk, the team loses focus on the project and goals, and takes actions that are intended to fix the problem but actually make it worse, as the actions are not well thought out. This “project anxiety” can be destructive if not controlled, and so the risk assessment and response plans become even more critical.
Risks are scary in projects because they’re unknown, but also because they result in change – something the people sometimes have a hard time with. The only way to absolutely prevent a risk on a project is to not do the project. Since that is rarely a meaningful option, some effort in assessing and planning for risks can create a safety net within the project to minimize the impact when they occur.
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.