Managing Non-Content Risks: Part I
by Rick Brenner
When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets things done.
Robert F. Scott and three of his party arrive at a tent left by Roald Amundsen near the South Pole, on Thursday, January 18, 1912. Left to right are Capt. Scott, Capt. Oates, Dr. Wilson, and P.O. Evans. The photographer is Lt. Bowers. To many viewers, the party looks dejected, a hunch that is confirmed by Scott's journal entries. They had hoped to arrive first, and in that they failed. Scott's expedition suffered from several shortcomings, one of the more fundamental of which was a lack of focus. It was to be both a voyage of scientific discovery, and an attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. Despite their failure to reach the Pole first, the party continued to pursue their scientific objectives. For instance, during the return from the Pole, the party continued to gather and carry rock samples. This activity was indeed unwise, because the effort involved in carrying the rocks was unsustainable, given their physical condition. When the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers were found, their sledge was still encumbered with rock samples. By modern standards, if not contemporary standards, their return trip suffered from misplaced focus. The primary focus must always be preservation of life. By attempting to achieve both scientific and geographical goals, the expedition compromised both.
Risk management of efforts that lack focus or which have misplaced focus is difficult, if not impossible. Photo by Lt. Henry "Birdie" Bowers, British Antarctic Expedition, 1910-13.
When we undertake tasks in organizations, we face risks. The most obvious risks are those that are most closely related to the task at hand. These risks, which we might call content risks, include factors such as technological unknowns, resource availability, and competition. But there are other risks, often overlooked, that can dramatically influence our chances for success.
One of these is risk management risk, which is the risk that the risk management process is flawed, due to such factors as organizational political correctness, organizational blind spots, or the risk that political phenomena render certain risks invisible to risk managers.
Here are some examples of non-content risks, with suggestions for managing them. In this Part I, we emphasize risk sources related to perceptions.
- Misplaced or excessive focus
- Typically, organizations have in place processes that maintain focus on what they do well. For example, approvals are required to allocate resources to forward-looking initiatives. But some organizations are excessively zealous about maintaining focus, and some are mistaken about where that focus should be. For instance, organizations that need to undertake efforts to adopt new technologies to serve their existing customers sometimes refrain from doing so because of advocacy by those representing customers most resistant to change.
- Advocates of advanced initiatives would do well to protect their activities from notice until their relevance is evident to all, easily explained, and easily defended. Working demonstrations are especially useful.
- Resentment bred by success
- We rarely consider risks associated with success. But here's one: your effort is so successful and appealing that people seek to join your team. Having to decline these offers because of insufficient resources isn't much of a problem, because people do understand that issue. The more difficult problem is the resentment such success can engender on the part of potential political adversaries.
- When appropriate,Advocates of advanced initiatives
would do well to protect their
activities from notice until their
relevance is evident to all devise plans for dealing with such challenges. One helpful guideline: don't publicize your success internally unless the publicity materially aids the effort and you have political strength sufficient to withstand challenges.
- Unsustainable loads
- The term "unsustainable load" usually evokes thoughts of overload and burnout. Certainly, high loads are unsustainable. But low loads can also be unsustainable. Sustainability of a given workload is in part determined by perceived differences between one's own workload and the workloads of colleagues and peers.
- Loads much higher, or much lower, than cultural norms are unsustainable in the long term. High loads cause burnout and bailout; low loads attract those with agendas other than your own, and risk losing people (and stakeholders) from boredom and idleness. Strive for workloads near but slightly above the cultural norm.
Next time, we'll turn our attention to risks arising from organizational politics. Next in this series Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Project Management
- Scheduling as Risk Management
- When we schedule a complex project, we balance logical order, resource constraints, and even politics. Here are some techniques for using scheduling to manage risk and reduce costs.
- Project Improvisation Fundamentals
- Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
- Project Improvisation and Risk Management
- When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
- Nonlinear Work: When Superposition Fails
- Much of the work we do is confounding, because we consistently underestimate the effort involved, the resources required, and the time required to get it done. The failure of superposition can be one reason why we get it wrong.
- Managing Non-Content Risks: Part II
- When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand — content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those that relate to organizational politics.
See also Project Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact me for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: