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Volume 12, Issue 44;   October 31, 2012: Managing Non-Content Risks: I

Managing Non-Content Risks: I

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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

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 Go to top Top  Next issue: Managing Non-Content Risks: II  Next Issue

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