Hope is not a strategy: Rudy Giuliani
He who fights and runs away
May live to fight another day;
But he who is battle slain
Can never rise to fight again: Oliver Goldsmith
Time and risk have an interesting relationship in Project Management. It makes perfect sense to prioritize something that may occur next week ahead of something that could happen next year. This is an established risk response strategy, but you must guard against this turning into the default response strategy.
Time can change many things, but it can’t change all things! You must avoid the project team operating with a “kick the can down the road” mentality where all the interested parties merely postpone dealing with obvious problems. If there is a high probability/high impact risk that will occur later in the project, it should be addressed through an avoidance or contingent response strategy. High probability/high impact risks can almost never be addressed through mitigation.
The PMBOK® discusses this very briefly, but only as a “Risk Urgency Assessment” where near term risks should be considered more carefully than more distant risks.
There are instances where you can’t avoid the high probability/high impact risk, or where a suitable contingent response plan can’t be developed. In those instances, it is the project manager’s responsibility to document the facts and recommend to the sponsor that the project be terminated.
If a project is doomed to failure, it is much better to identify that before significant organization resources are expended.
There are instances where it is appropriate to wait and see if circumstances will change a risk, and this is a great story that illustrates how time can be used to strategic advantage under the right conditions:
“One of your most ancient writers, a historian named Herodotus, tells of a thief who was to be executed. As he was taken away he made a bargain with the king: in one year he would teach the king’s favorite horse to sing hymns. The other prisoners watched the thief singing to the horse and laughed.
“You will not succeed,” they told him. “No one can.”
To which the thief replied, “I have a year, and who knows what might happen in that time. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die.
And perhaps the horse will learn to sing.”
— “The Mote in God’s Eye”, Niven and Pournelle.
What a fantastic story! Confronted with a near term “high probability/high impact” risk, the thief chose to delay the imminent fatal event with the hopes that his circumstance would change! By injecting the passage of time into the equation, he changed the probability portion of the risk! In ”real life” this is a perfectly rational strategy which falls under the “live to fight another day” philosophy espoused by Goldsmith.
In this instance, the “project” could not be terminated (poor choice of words!) and the risk was imminent and fatal, so the risk response strategy of delaying exposure to the risk is brilliant.
The project managers that I work with tend to be optimists by nature, and many have a well-deserved faith in the abilities of themselves and their teams. They believe that they can overcome any obstacle placed in their way to deliver their project. There is a significant difference between optimistic pragmatism and a Pollyannaish view of the project.
A successful project manager needs to view the world as it is, not as they wish it to be!
An overly optimistic attitude about time changing things for the better is a fatal flaw for a project manager. The PM’s job is to make sure that the work of the project (scope) is delivered when promised (schedule) within the allocated budget (cost). Risk management is crucial to this. If the PM is confronted with a high probability/high impact risk that can’t be avoided or a contingent response strategy developed, there is no benefit to the project in delaying the inevitable!
For a living being, every minute is precious. For a project, every minute costs money!
And that is the difference.
If a PM is confronted with a fact pattern that indicates that the project will fail, they should utilize the risk assessment techniques we have previously discussed. If there is no practical way to deliver the project, they should immediately disclose this to key stakeholders and recommend the project be terminated.
For the Project Manager, hope is not a strategy. And there is almost never a benefit in assuming that time will change things for the better.
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Bill has been an Executive in the Federal Sector for over 15 years and has been responsible for the delivery of many high profile, high risk, public facing projects. He has worked for the same organization for 28 years, starting as a front-line technician and rising quickly to the rank of Executive.
He holds numerous trademarks and is the inventor and Unites States Patent holder of the SeaClutch®, an invention targeted at the boating and RV community.
Bill is a sought-after speaker and has spoken at conferences around the world. He is a published author in the field of Project Management, is an experienced Project Management Professional® certification instructor, and has successfully taught hundreds of students over the past several years.
He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Finance from Augusta State University and was named one of their Distinguished Alumni in 2016. He holds Master’s Certificates in both Project and Program Management from George Washington University, and is a Senior Executive Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He holds the following professional certifications: Project Management Professional (PMP), Program Management Professional (PgMP), Project Management Institute Agile Certified Practitioner (PIM-ACP), Project Management Institute Risk Management Professional (PMI-RMP).
Bill is an acknowledged international expert in Data Management, Data Safeguards and Data Analytics.
He has extensive international experience and has worked closely with representatives from multiple jurisdictions around the world, personally visiting over 40 in an official capacity.
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