How an Engagement Leader Can Help You Make Friends with Project Risk

In a perfect world, your design and development projects proceed seamlessly and finish with zero issues. But, in the real world, things happen; and not managing project risks can result in costly outcomes. Risk can impact the entire project team and its stakeholders, from business line leadership to the designers, developers, and QA testers in the trenches.

In this post understand the types of risk, the value of identifying risks, and how an experienced engagement leader can help adapt projects to mitigate risk and ensure successful outcomes. This creates an efficient path for you to deliver an awesome experience to your customers, users, and employees.

By Dave Ebert

In a perfect world, your design and development projects proceed seamlessly and finish with zero issues. But, in the real world, things happen; and not managing project risks can result in costly outcomes. Risk can impact the entire project team and its stakeholders, from business line leadership to the designers, developers, and QA testers in the trenches.

My goal in writing this post is to help you understand types of risk, the value of identifying risks, and how an experienced engagement leader can help adapt projects to mitigate risk and ensure successful outcomes. This creates an efficient path for you to deliver an awesome experience to your customers, users, and employees.

What is Project Risk?

Sometimes, it can be too difficult to align people and processes by yourself. External partners such as engagement leaders are dedicated to delivering the best possible solution in a timely manner and help you manage all of the moving parts (and people) in your organization. Most importantly, they will help you manage potential risks.

An Engagement leader helps manage project risk

An engagement leader will help unite divergent channels and priorities.

How so? To use an example from my own strategic practice, I situate risk in the middle of the continuum of project challenges. It looks something like this:
Watch Item to risk to issue2
Each term can be defined in the following way:

  • Watch Item: Someone (and that’s key, someone really does need to own it) better watch this item, because it has the potential to become a true risk. A typical reaction could be, “I’ve seen this before, and if we don’t get in front of it by doing X…”
  • Risk: Something has come up that was not planned for, or a watch item has evolved into what we feared. If we don’t now form a plan to mitigate it (plan around it), it could change the project’s outcome (positively or negatively).
  • Issue: An issue is a risk that has fully matured and is now real. Either our efforts to mitigate it didn’t pan out, or another influencing factor caused it to actualize in an unpredicted way.

A critical point I must emphasize is that risks are GOING to occur on your project. How you make friends with that notion, and then with each risk itself, is a testament to your ability to be recognized as a strategic leader. The chief responsibility of an engagement leader is to help you find clever ways to build and release that product, and put something useful in your hands on time and on-budget, period.

The First Step to Better Manage Project Risk

It’s important that your engagement leader has a consistent process for identifying and communicating risks. Throughout the project management process, I document and report project risks within the construct of a static status report every week, and then I present those risks to a broad and varied group of stakeholders. I also do the same for watch items, but because risks sit squarely in the middle of our challenge continuum, they are the items that are most hotly debated.

What often ensues in these discussions are not the items that are the most useful. Stakeholders in larger organizations often react to a review of risks like the students at Hogwarts react to the word “Voldemort,” and they will apply any means necessary to depress or challenge a citation of risks. They may try to inhibit the risk discussion both verbally and formally, because they don’t want their project to be on the “at risk” project list reviewed by their leadership.

Some are afraid to name, never mind manage, project risks

Some don’t even want to name a risk because it could cast the project in a negative light.

This is a strange conundrum if you’re the main driver of a project. On one hand, you might say, “Keep my project green-lit by painting a happy path, even though there are some challenges…we’ll figure this out.” However, you might also be reluctant to acknowledge or discuss mitigation planning, because it brings to light the fact that there is a problem. Basically, it’s the equivalent of saying, “If I close my eyes when we are playing hide and seek, you can’t see me, right?”

Rather than pretending potential problems don’t exist, your engagement leader can lead an organized method to jump these hurdles.

Education Always Works. Usually.

To get past these roadblocks, I suggest applying an “if/then” construction to the identification of risks, and also exploring dual or triad outcomes that may be feasible given various mitigation tactics.   This approach effectively situates the risk clearly along a timeline.

The clearer and more specific your citations are, the better you’ve done in understanding the risk and being prepared to battle it. A risk is no different than a ‘Watch Item.’ It not only needs to be documented, but a person needs to own it. Appoint a clear owner, or multiple owners—particularly if there are downstream dependencies upon which layers of the risk may be exposed—to ensure awareness and ownership of the risk so as to prevent it from becoming a critical issue. Your engagement leader can act as a more neutral arbitrator and help assign cross-team tasks.

An engagement leader helps unite the team

An engagement leader helps unite the team.

With this more matter-of-fact, outcome-driven approach, your team and stakeholders tend to take less umbrage than they might with generic, categorical hand-waving that isn’t consistently rooted around outcomes. The “if/then” approach will help map objectives to the eventual goal of pleasing the end customer by delivering a usable solution into the marketplace.

Key Gains from Effective Project Risk Management

Working with an engagement leader can significantly improve risk mitigation in a number of ways:

  1. Risks aren’t issues—yet—which means you have time to change. Use it wisely.

    Your adaptation signals a conviction in the project, as well as your awareness of constraints and how those constraints can be flexed to achieve outcomes (budget, time, scope, and combinations thereof).

  2. A plan is only a plan; risks force you to change your plans, and there has never been a project plan written that did not undergo some kind of change

    Example: Years ago, we were two weeks into a small marketing site for a large financial services company, when the UX Lead and I realized that we could take a fundamentally different approach to the content strategy of the engagement without having any detrimental impact to the timeline or budget. The client initially rejected the notion, because it meant changing the “plan,” and they were worried that their leadership would not want to entertain change so early on. We convinced them, however, by showing them that we could actually deliver ahead of schedule and for less money. From then on, they were much more amenable to the notion of adaptation.

  3. Through this process, you will become a better communicator.

    You learn to identify clearly and exactly what the problem is. By being clear, you help others understand both the risk and the advisements for mitigation, empower them to act and understand impact, and ultimately to take ownership. In many cases, these communications need to go to senior leaders for whom brevity is crucial. Your communications here have immense potential positive impact on your organizational awareness and appreciation.

    Example: A couple of years ago, our team got called in to “rescue” a project that had gone off the rails for a large media and entertainment company. All hope was lost. I asked the client to tell me what the major issues and risks were that created the turmoil. One by one they named them, but they’d never been clearly articulated by the prior consulting firm. Once we got them on paper and saw them for what they were, prioritized them, assigned them out, sequenced them, and gave them closure dates, things magically started to come together. Without a guidebook, it’s hard to know where you are going.

    An engagement leader will help with strategy

    Laying out schedules and deadlines creates a structured approach to managing risks.

  4. Overall, you will become more valuable.

    By demonstrating prowess across risk identification, mitigation, communication, and a 360° view of the project, you position yourself and your team as strategic leaders, all keeping an eye on the prize of delivering for the customer. It means that you care, and you are actively seeking ways to improve things, or find more productive ways to get things done, even if they are at odds with current practices.

    Example: Not too long ago, I was asked by a client to submit a proposal for solving a governance challenge that they were having across multiple business lines for an international banking giant. When my team and I truly thought about what the client was looking to solve for, it seemed like the political and downstream project risk could be more proactively solved by approaching the project solution differently. We brainstormed on a fundamentally different approach, and the client was more than pleased with the solution and the outcome. The bottom line here is that the value of good Engagement Leadership and the ability to ensure success can happen not just at the incremental level of day-by-day risk mitigation, but at the macro/strategic level as well.

Conclusion

Working with an engagement leader can make a significant difference in how you manage project risk. This will not only decrease the likelihood of project completion delays, but also enable a number of other very positive outcomes that aren’t always purely product-based. You will learn a lot about:

  • The perceived value of the customer to various stakeholders
  • The team you’re working with and how external partners can fill in gaps in skills or resources
  • How far you can push your team and when to peel back
  • All aspects of the project, and what features and systems are most important
  • How well you and your team are able to adapt and to help others adapt

In short, project risk management is not about being Chicken Little.

the sky is falling

It’s about appreciating how the little things can add up, always being on alert for protecting the safety and welfare of your project, and believing in the solution’s end goal: deliver customer value and an optimal customer experience.

Plan your project with our Experience Strategy Services.

What risks have come up in your projects and how have you managed them? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Image Credits: “PMBOK Cafe” by Robert Higgins, licensed under CC 2.0, “No” sign by Sboneham licensed under CC 2.0,  “Design Meeting” by Jeffrey Zeldman licensed under CC 2.0, “The Sky is Falling” by KAZ Vorpal licensed under CC 2.0

In a perfect world, your design and development projects proceed seamlessly and finish with zero issues. But, in the real world, things happen; and not managing project risks can result in costly outcomes. Risk can impact the entire project team and its stakeholders, from business line leadership to the designers, developers, and QA testers in the trenches.

In this post understand the types of risk, the value of identifying risks, and how an experienced engagement leader can help adapt projects to mitigate risk and ensure successful outcomes. This creates an efficient path for you to deliver an awesome experience to your customers, users, and employees.

By Dave Ebert

In a perfect world, your design and development projects proceed seamlessly and finish with zero issues. But, in the real world, things happen; and not managing project risks can result in costly outcomes. Risk can impact the entire project team and its stakeholders, from business line leadership to the designers, developers, and QA testers in the trenches.

My goal in writing this post is to help you understand types of risk, the value of identifying risks, and how an experienced engagement leader can help adapt projects to mitigate risk and ensure successful outcomes. This creates an efficient path for you to deliver an awesome experience to your customers, users, and employees.

What is Project Risk?

Sometimes, it can be too difficult to align people and processes by yourself. External partners such as engagement leaders are dedicated to delivering the best possible solution in a timely manner and help you manage all of the moving parts (and people) in your organization. Most importantly, they will help you manage potential risks.

An Engagement leader helps manage project risk

An engagement leader will help unite divergent channels and priorities.

How so? To use an example from my own strategic practice, I situate risk in the middle of the continuum of project challenges. It looks something like this:
Watch Item to risk to issue2
Each term can be defined in the following way:

  • Watch Item: Someone (and that’s key, someone really does need to own it) better watch this item, because it has the potential to become a true risk. A typical reaction could be, “I’ve seen this before, and if we don’t get in front of it by doing X…”
  • Risk: Something has come up that was not planned for, or a watch item has evolved into what we feared. If we don’t now form a plan to mitigate it (plan around it), it could change the project’s outcome (positively or negatively).
  • Issue: An issue is a risk that has fully matured and is now real. Either our efforts to mitigate it didn’t pan out, or another influencing factor caused it to actualize in an unpredicted way.

A critical point I must emphasize is that risks are GOING to occur on your project. How you make friends with that notion, and then with each risk itself, is a testament to your ability to be recognized as a strategic leader. The chief responsibility of an engagement leader is to help you find clever ways to build and release that product, and put something useful in your hands on time and on-budget, period.

The First Step to Better Manage Project Risk

It’s important that your engagement leader has a consistent process for identifying and communicating risks. Throughout the project management process, I document and report project risks within the construct of a static status report every week, and then I present those risks to a broad and varied group of stakeholders. I also do the same for watch items, but because risks sit squarely in the middle of our challenge continuum, they are the items that are most hotly debated.

What often ensues in these discussions are not the items that are the most useful. Stakeholders in larger organizations often react to a review of risks like the students at Hogwarts react to the word “Voldemort,” and they will apply any means necessary to depress or challenge a citation of risks. They may try to inhibit the risk discussion both verbally and formally, because they don’t want their project to be on the “at risk” project list reviewed by their leadership.

Some are afraid to name, never mind manage, project risks

Some don’t even want to name a risk because it could cast the project in a negative light.

This is a strange conundrum if you’re the main driver of a project. On one hand, you might say, “Keep my project green-lit by painting a happy path, even though there are some challenges…we’ll figure this out.” However, you might also be reluctant to acknowledge or discuss mitigation planning, because it brings to light the fact that there is a problem. Basically, it’s the equivalent of saying, “If I close my eyes when we are playing hide and seek, you can’t see me, right?”

Rather than pretending potential problems don’t exist, your engagement leader can lead an organized method to jump these hurdles.

Education Always Works. Usually.

To get past these roadblocks, I suggest applying an “if/then” construction to the identification of risks, and also exploring dual or triad outcomes that may be feasible given various mitigation tactics.   This approach effectively situates the risk clearly along a timeline.

The clearer and more specific your citations are, the better you’ve done in understanding the risk and being prepared to battle it. A risk is no different than a ‘Watch Item.’ It not only needs to be documented, but a person needs to own it. Appoint a clear owner, or multiple owners—particularly if there are downstream dependencies upon which layers of the risk may be exposed—to ensure awareness and ownership of the risk so as to prevent it from becoming a critical issue. Your engagement leader can act as a more neutral arbitrator and help assign cross-team tasks.

An engagement leader helps unite the team

An engagement leader helps unite the team.

With this more matter-of-fact, outcome-driven approach, your team and stakeholders tend to take less umbrage than they might with generic, categorical hand-waving that isn’t consistently rooted around outcomes. The “if/then” approach will help map objectives to the eventual goal of pleasing the end customer by delivering a usable solution into the marketplace.

Key Gains from Effective Project Risk Management

Working with an engagement leader can significantly improve risk mitigation in a number of ways:

  1. Risks aren’t issues—yet—which means you have time to change. Use it wisely.

    Your adaptation signals a conviction in the project, as well as your awareness of constraints and how those constraints can be flexed to achieve outcomes (budget, time, scope, and combinations thereof).

  2. A plan is only a plan; risks force you to change your plans, and there has never been a project plan written that did not undergo some kind of change

    Example: Years ago, we were two weeks into a small marketing site for a large financial services company, when the UX Lead and I realized that we could take a fundamentally different approach to the content strategy of the engagement without having any detrimental impact to the timeline or budget. The client initially rejected the notion, because it meant changing the “plan,” and they were worried that their leadership would not want to entertain change so early on. We convinced them, however, by showing them that we could actually deliver ahead of schedule and for less money. From then on, they were much more amenable to the notion of adaptation.

  3. Through this process, you will become a better communicator.

    You learn to identify clearly and exactly what the problem is. By being clear, you help others understand both the risk and the advisements for mitigation, empower them to act and understand impact, and ultimately to take ownership. In many cases, these communications need to go to senior leaders for whom brevity is crucial. Your communications here have immense potential positive impact on your organizational awareness and appreciation.

    Example: A couple of years ago, our team got called in to “rescue” a project that had gone off the rails for a large media and entertainment company. All hope was lost. I asked the client to tell me what the major issues and risks were that created the turmoil. One by one they named them, but they’d never been clearly articulated by the prior consulting firm. Once we got them on paper and saw them for what they were, prioritized them, assigned them out, sequenced them, and gave them closure dates, things magically started to come together. Without a guidebook, it’s hard to know where you are going.

    An engagement leader will help with strategy

    Laying out schedules and deadlines creates a structured approach to managing risks.

  4. Overall, you will become more valuable.

    By demonstrating prowess across risk identification, mitigation, communication, and a 360° view of the project, you position yourself and your team as strategic leaders, all keeping an eye on the prize of delivering for the customer. It means that you care, and you are actively seeking ways to improve things, or find more productive ways to get things done, even if they are at odds with current practices.

    Example: Not too long ago, I was asked by a client to submit a proposal for solving a governance challenge that they were having across multiple business lines for an international banking giant. When my team and I truly thought about what the client was looking to solve for, it seemed like the political and downstream project risk could be more proactively solved by approaching the project solution differently. We brainstormed on a fundamentally different approach, and the client was more than pleased with the solution and the outcome. The bottom line here is that the value of good Engagement Leadership and the ability to ensure success can happen not just at the incremental level of day-by-day risk mitigation, but at the macro/strategic level as well.

Conclusion

Working with an engagement leader can make a significant difference in how you manage project risk. This will not only decrease the likelihood of project completion delays, but also enable a number of other very positive outcomes that aren’t always purely product-based. You will learn a lot about:

  • The perceived value of the customer to various stakeholders
  • The team you’re working with and how external partners can fill in gaps in skills or resources
  • How far you can push your team and when to peel back
  • All aspects of the project, and what features and systems are most important
  • How well you and your team are able to adapt and to help others adapt

In short, project risk management is not about being Chicken Little.

the sky is falling

It’s about appreciating how the little things can add up, always being on alert for protecting the safety and welfare of your project, and believing in the solution’s end goal: deliver customer value and an optimal customer experience.

Plan your project with our Experience Strategy Services.

What risks have come up in your projects and how have you managed them? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Image Credits: “PMBOK Cafe” by Robert Higgins, licensed under CC 2.0, “No” sign by Sboneham licensed under CC 2.0,  “Design Meeting” by Jeffrey Zeldman licensed under CC 2.0, “The Sky is Falling” by KAZ Vorpal licensed under CC 2.0

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2017-08-10T11:27:50+00:00