Project Management: Sitting on a Beach or Managing Exposure?

If I had a crystal ball to foresee the future, I’d sit on a beach and sip a cocktail. Well – I don’t.

In fact, very likely at the time I can lay my hand on the proverbial crystal ball, everybody else would have one, too. So, in a way, I am glad there are no crystal balls helping me or anyone else to predict what is going to happen: It would destroy my business model as a consultant and project manager, as I manage my clients‘ exposure to risk.

Project Management = Risk Management

Mostly I lead transformation, carve-out and/or post-merger integration projects. Such projects are very complex, and high complexity generally translates into high risk. Many a thing can happen in the course of such programs: System failures, resource issues, a pandemic breaks lose, loss of key people, roadblocks with the works council, unforeseen regulatory hurdles…. You name it, I’ve been there.

Unfortunately, ambiguity lies in the nature my daily business, and dealing with it is one of my core challenges. Hence, I manage my client’s exposure to unwanted outcomes by predicting what might happen, and find ways to either prevent it, or at least prepare for it. The classic risk register is a simple, but proven tool to collect risk information, and hold a catalog of mitigation strategies.

Risks to the Project Timeline

Usually, I am working to a set timeline in my assignments. (If there was no timeline set by the client, I will set one: Swift implementation is a key success factor in PMI scenarios in particular. Procrastination never adds value – compare my article on the subject.) Since anything is connected to everything in transformation projects, understanding and management of functional dependencies is critical to project success: There are no ivory towers in my line of work, and if there were, they needed breaking down.

Since sequential task completion does not work in complex environments, many activities run in parallel; they are interconnected, and yet I have to give the project direction based upon incomplete information and projections. In the interest of time, I make assumptions of projected outcomes and schedule accordingly. Failing to do so, waiting for hard facts instead of applying probabilities to potential alternative events and outcomes will most likely lead to missing the overall timeline.

Conveying the concept of dealing with ambiguity, of being at the ready for a desired outcome, but at the same time prepare for the unwanted, is a project manager’s key competence. It takes conviction, persuasive power and a very good understanding of the project, functional interfaces and dependencies to succeed.

A regular, open and healthy exchange of information on progress, risks and new dependencies across functional workstreams will facilitate cross-fertilization, risk-flagging and early alignment. The good old stand-up meeting presents a great stage for key team members to report on their tasks ahead and challenge others. Be sure to make this a firm part of your team’s schedule.