The Seven Deadly Sins of Project Management – Article 7.: Superficial Risk Management

Organisations can turn strategy into action by using project management. Despite the increased investment in project management capabilities, many projects fail to achieve their goals.
This article concludes the series by examining how superficial risk management can lead to deadly traps for project team members. It is one of the “seven deadly sins”, originally formulated by Jeffrey Pinto in his paper “Lies, damned, and Project Plans”: Recurring human mistakes that can ruin project planning.
Skarbek often jumps into situations where key client projects are in crisis. Is it malpractice in project management or environmental factors that led to failure such as lack of commitment, sponsorship, resources, or engagement? Pinto’s seven deadly sins offer some insight for project managers who are quick to point out that their projects were well managed, but that external factors conspired against them.
Pinto’s final sin is the inexactitude of risk management. Pinto’s main observation is the diversity of approaches used within and across organizations. He also pointed out the lack of learning in many teams’ approaches towards risk. We can think of a current example: There are very few project risk registers today that do not include pandemic-related factors. This is the lesson learned. The lesson has been learned. How can project teams increase their ability to learn and not just react?
Another problem we often find is that project risks registers are just that, registers. Once identified, the risks are not managed. They can sit there until they become problems, which saps project teams’ time as they are not managed. The team is often so busy with current issues, that they don’t get to the mitigation plans for risks. This creates a continuous conveyor belt of problems and risks that are never addressed.
High-impact, low-probability risks (pandemic anyone?) are particularly important. These risks are often overlooked, as evidenced by the fact that a pandemic was at the top of the UK Government’s risk register for many years before the COVID-19 pandemic. It is possible that there was a failure to fully engage in the various consequences of a pandemic, as well as an inability to obtain all the relevant learnings from countries who have dealt with the SARS pandemic.
Senior leaders’ treatment of risk often leads to suppression. If risks are viewed as something that a project team will overcome if they work hard enough, it is not fair that senior leaders are only able to demand success.
Business leaders have a responsibility to manage risk. Leaders must be aware of the risks in their portfolio and can help the project teams by being transparent with their leadership.
Skarbek has three very effective ways to re-imagine risk management and bring risk to life for sponsors and project teams:
Pre-mortem. To overcome the mental block that “we are too busy to mitigate that and that won’t happen anyway”. Pre-mortem is a technique that asks teams to imagine the patient has died. The risk has become a problem. They then brainstorm the reasons for the problem, which can lead to actions that can be taken now to mitigate the risk.
McRaven Technique. Vice-Admiral William H. McRaven was the one who devised the strategy to capture Osama Bin Laden. He published his analysis of the success factors for several special forces operations in his book Spec Ops. He identified a few common characteristics that made successful operations.