Looking for the ‘unknown unknowns’ can be a powerful tool to reduce the risk of a project failing, says lecturer Dr Alec Waterworth.
Ask any senior leader in a large organisation about how they address risk management and it’s likely you will receive a confident response. Compiling risk registers and contingency plans is commonplace in business today, especially in bigger and more complex organisations, making leaders feel like ‘we’ve got that covered’.
The problem with risk management strategies
This traditional approach to risk management can give organisations a false sense of security. After all, a risk is only a risk if we can define it.
What about the things we don’t know? Life is full of uncertainty and unwelcome surprises can come from anywhere, derailing even the best-laid plans.
Covid has, of course, been an extreme example of this; coming from left field and moving at lightning speed, the pandemic has significantly changed all of our lives over the past few years.
As dramatic as its impact has been, a global pandemic was a known risk to society, with different nations in various states of readiness to tackle it.
But there are many more uncertainties in life, and in business, that can be hard to predict and prepare for. That’s why it’s important to adopt a wider perspective on risk management, learning how to actively seek out and deal with uncertainty, as well as dealing with known risks.
When I introduce this topic to our delegates, there’s often a visible sense of relief as they realise that they don’t need to be afraid of uncertainty or carry the burden alone.
How to seek out uncertainty: directed recognition
So, what are the tools and techniques that can help with this uncertainty?
An excellent place to start is to look at the work done by Browning and Ramasesh around a concept they call ‘directed recognition’.
In their paper, Reducing Unwelcome Surprises in Project Management, the researchers explain that many of the surprises that derail a project are things we could, in fact, have uncovered, had we taken the time to find out about them.
But so many projects are under pressure to ‘just get started’ that they often get underway with a large gap remaining between what we could know and what we do know.
Using their process of directed recognition, it is possible to reduce this gap by deepening our understanding of the project environment to uncover more of the ‘unknown unknowns’ in the crucial planning stage. Another more widely understood term for this is ‘sense making’.
Some of the techniques of directed recognition include:
- Breaking a project down into smaller components and analysing the potential problems for each
- Using long interviews with key stakeholders to deeply probe a topic, which can help to uncover hidden problems
- Using checklists of learnings from previous projects as a tool to support future planning
- Creating an ‘alert culture’ in which people strive to uncover and disclose rather than hide potential problems
Another tool highlighted by Browning and Ramasesh is scenario planning – imaging different future outcomes for a project, built on uncertainty and change. This open-minded, future-focused way of thinking can be extremely powerful in uncovering the ‘unknown unknowns’ that can derail a project.
The Premortem Technique
This approach is explored more fully by Gary Klein, who has created a powerful technique he calls ‘The Premortem’.
The polar opposite of the post-mortem, running a premortem involves imagining that the project has already failed and then working backwards to find the reasons why.
By starting with the effect and working back to the cause, it enables an entirely different way of thinking. Not only broadening the horizons of traditional risk management approaches, but giving everyone in the team a voice, as well as the freedom to identify and raise concerns that may otherwise go unsaid.
It can also be great fun, bringing some much-needed levity and creativity into what can be a dull and difficult space.
Looking back on my own experience in the oil and gas industry, adopting a premortem approach would have felt like a breath of fresh air for those who were, like me, locked into three-day sessions analysing risk for highly complex projects.
More importantly, it would have unlocked more powerful thinking and ultimately led to more successful projects.
How uncertainty can make a difference in the workplace
Uncertainty is a fascinating topic to explore, but crucially, our delegates tell us that it is also making a real difference to them in the workplace.
The risk and uncertainty module is one that is consistently highlighted in delegate feedback. Within 6-12 weeks of teaching the concept, people are already telling me about the positive impact it has made in their organisation: encouraging better communication, providing useful tools and techniques, and strengthening the culture.
Many delegates go on to run workshops themselves, spreading the learning and embedding these approaches more widely within their organisations.
Embracing uncertainty for a positive workplace
One of the reasons this topic resonates so much with delegates is that at its core it is about promoting a positive working environment.
Whichever technique we use, embracing uncertainty builds effective communication and behaviours that help to develop a strong and open organisational culture. It promotes a culture where assumptions are challenged and minority views are not just welcomed, but actively sought out, making workplaces healthier and happier places to be.
I think this is why I pick up on that sense of relief from delegates when I introduce the subject, and why they so warmly embrace the techniques when they return to their day-to-day working lives.
The continual process of uncertainty
As with most management techniques, embracing uncertainty is not just a process to be conducted at a single moment in time and then forgotten. To harness the greatest benefit, it must be actively adopted for the whole lifecycle of a project - processes and behaviours must be built in.
The rewards are significant. By being brave enough to embrace uncertainty and to surface those nagging doubts, rather than burying your head in the sand, you can share the burden of risk management, deliver more effective projects and promote a happier working environment for your team.
That’s a win-win-win that’s surely worth aiming for.
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