Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 50;   December 10, 2014: On the Risk of Undetected Issues: Part I

On the Risk of Undetected Issues: Part I

by

In complex projects, things might have gone wrong long before we notice them. Noticing them as early as possible — and addressing them — is almost always advantageous. How can we reduce the incidence of undetected issues?
The damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, as seen from the command module

The damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, as seen from the command module. The damage was caused when an oxygen tank exploded as a result of damaged insulation on a wire powering a sensor inside the tank, according to the findings of the Apollo 13 Review Board, which conducted a post-mission investigation. In effect, the investigation discovered the undetected issue, even though the Board did not have access to the Service Module, which was destroyed on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. The Board's analysis demonstrates that, in principle, the issue could have been detected prior to launch. Photo courtesy US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Language and terminology are the tools we use to express our thoughts. But language and terminology can do much more — they can actually influence the way we think. And that influence isn't always helpful.

Consider risk. In project management, and fields closely related, there's an ongoing conversation about differences between the term risk and the term issue. Although disagreement and confusion persist, most people agree about two points. First, a risk is an event or condition that might or might not occur, while an issue is an event or condition that has already occurred, or which will certainly occur. Second, both risks (if they occur) and issues have adverse consequences for objectives.

The principal difference between risks and issues is that risks have probability less than 100%; issues have probability 100%.

This distinction leaves at least one situation uncovered: what do we call adverse events that have occurred (or which certainly will occur), but which as yet have escaped notice? I call them undetected issues. Undetected issues can be problematic, because although we treat them as risks, they aren't risks at all.

How does all this relate to our use of language? When we think of undetected issues as risks, we tend to regard them as not yet having happened, as opposed to having happened and not yet having been detected. Thinking about them this way can be problematic. For example, thinking of a condition as not yet having happened can lead to dismissing as pointless — or not worthwhile — any plan to determine whether or not it has already occurred. Why search for something that hasn't happened?

On the other hand, we might be more willing to expend resources to uncover the presence of undetected issues. When we do search, we're more likely to find them.

For example, consider the mission of Apollo XIII. A liquid oxygen tank exploded during Hour 55 of the mission due to When we think of undetected issues
as risks, we tend to regard them
as not yet having happened, as
opposed to having happened
and not yet having been detected
damaged insulation on wires inside the tank, which resulted from procedures executed years earlier. Before installation in the vehicle, the damage was a risk. After installation, it was not a risk at all — it was an undetected issue. And post-incident, a thorough investigation did uncover the undetected issue. How would the mission have been affected if NASA — before launch — had conducted a more thorough search for undetected issues?

Many project teams now develop risk management plans. Few of these plans address the risk of undetected issues. If we think clearly about the distinctions among issues, risks, undetected issues, and the risk of undetected issues, we're more likely to include mechanisms in the design of our systems — and procedures, schedule, and resources in the design of our projects — that facilitate detecting as-yet-undetected issues.

We'll explore some practices that can help teams uncover undetected issues next time. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: On the Risk of Undetected Issues: Part II  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenAayaFGfxvsOgBNZDner@ChacNqWCLTdGRVYyYorhoCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

In-flight portrait of the Apollo 13 Environmental Control SystemProject 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.
Captain Robert F. Scott and most of his team returning from the South PoleProject 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.
A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008The Politics of the Critical Path: Part I
The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
Erecting a floating bridge in Korea (1952)When Change Is Hard: Part II
When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance." But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
Eugene F. Kranz, flight director, at his console on May 30, 1965, in the Control Room in the Mission Control Center at HoustonDesign Errors and Group Biases
Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.

See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeComing April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016And on April 12: How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen? Available here and by RSS on April 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGxHBoefCFuqhzUuAner@ChacoNTBjzncBuvlQQAFoCanyon.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

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers 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 organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.