Seeking the approaches that enable faster change in the complex world of health and social care
Risk management in project management has become a byword for trying to control risks that threaten a successful project, however if risk is about uncertainty then in my experience a focus on controlling threat risks is flawed . There is so much more to risk (uncertainty) management and this uncertainty needs to be embraced to increase the chances of a successful and accelerated project.
We live in an uncertain world and I’m not sure it will change anytime soon. Being able to live with uncertainty has been identified by many as a key leadership attribute, however the project and programme profession insists that risk be about managing threat risks through a process, the aim being to control or eliminate all risk. Time and time again I come across a densely populated risk register in a spreadsheet, full of very technical style language and rarely seen anywhere other than on the project or programme manager desktop. Sometimes senior leadership requests to see the risk register regularly and the resulting discussions can be helpful, but this process often creates a level of reassurance that is unwarranted and can lead to reduced vigilance around the risks or uncertainties within a project.
Embracing uncertainty in projects is vital, but a risk control approach to threat risks limits what can be achieved. For a start there are the opportunity aspects of risk (uncertainty), opening up your thinking to this changes the discussions and with some encouragement can change perspectives dramatically, E.g. Culture is often a risk to successful delivery and this is always seen as a threat risk, how would this change if the approach to the project itself was was seen as an opportunity to create a a culture that embraces change, it is possible if you think about it. Resources, funding, design, vision etc can all be seen from an opportunity perspective and rather than trying to control, seek to exploit through different conversations with very different results. Try it, and enjoy, these are now some of my favourite conversations.
In addition to the opportunity aspect, seeing risk and uncertainty as a core aspect of people orientated change guides you towards establishing a risk culture. A risk culture builds in a number of key features; vigilance, crisis recovery, risk management, into the work of the project or programme all beneficial to the programme, but the downside is it’s much more difficult to provide senior leaders and auditors with the kind of reassurance they seek from the risk control process.
So what does a risk culture look like? Starting with vigilance, this about ensuring that the team and key stakeholders remain on the lookout for threat and opportunity risks through both hard and soft data. It’s amazing how groups of people can agree on an increasing risk, but not have collectively recognised or managed/exploited it. Build into the workings of your team processes or governance opportunities for creating conversations about what’s changing, e.g agenda item or team worries board. Have you thought to include monitoring things like staff morale, collaboration, vision buyin into your metrics. But why not? It all helps to be vagilant to the world of and outside your change initiative.
When risks become real they often turn into crisis and most are predicable, not in detail, but at the macro level, I.e. crisis will happen and often the theme can be predicted, vision buy in/conflicting priorities/benefit delivery/delays etc. Why not therefore develop lots of recovery plans in advance using scenario planning techniques or alternatively if you are unsure what I mean, try a pre-mortem session with the team and/or key stakeholders. This will guide you to the themes. (Pre Mortem is a technique that allows teams to write a future headline that describes the project as a failure and then takes them through a process to understand why that might have happened and what could be done now to prevent it – they can be quite fun).
All this risk work prompts the ‘so what?’ question, whatever the approach you take to identifying risks and the scope of this process, the most important element is a risk management plan, without which there is no point in the rest of this. In a risk culture the risks management plan is embedded into the project or programme plan. How good is your risk management plan and where does it sit, separately or built into the delivery culture?
My experiences suggest that creating a risk culture is much more effective, much harder and, when engaged, provides senior leadership with greater assurance. In the past the sector has tried to eliminate rather than live with risk. The most commonly seen programmes of change; Strategic planning, Turnaround, CIP programmes etc.all seek to control risks and create large risk registers, analysis or planning, rather than embracing risk and uncertainty, establishing a different approach, taking a leap, seeing what great stuff emerges, and seizing the opportunities.