Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
Are project risks round? Curved objects can be less controllable than planar ones as they pitch, roll and yaw; and the tighter their curves the more difficult control becomes. Even a truly planar surface is, geometrically, a curve but with an infinite radius. The Earth’s horizon, that imaginary plane perpendicular to its radius is considered by some to be ‘flat’ but in reality it’s a sphere so we can never see over the horizon. But what has this got to do with project risk?
Projects are finite undertakings and the chance of encountering every conceivable risk is unlikely and a project’s playing field is, or rather should be, reasonably flat. However, hypothetically, if a project has infinite scope, complexity, pace, and novelty etc. then the chances of meeting every conceivable risk will be at least unity.
Take the life on Earth as a ‘project’; every possible risk will eventually be realised. Many risks, no matter how improbable may well have been encountered by somebody, somewhere at some time. There are also projects at the cutting edge of technology and such edges are far from flat surfaces and, consequently, are fraught with risk.
Risk is also related to the extent that we can see, or sometimes, want to see. This, in turn, is related to the flatness, or rather the roundness of the surface or surfaces on which a project operates. Just consider the following when it comes to project risk and roundness:
Getting Round Things
We seek out efficiency and effectiveness in our work and we optimise things, but oftentimes it’s not so much a conscious effort but merely taking a few short-cuts. Clipping corners, or shaving off a few corners, or missing out steps in a process may seem like a good idea as we save time and costs. And while it may have seemed a good idea at the time was it a good thing to do?
Unless getting round something is properly planned and thought through then later, or even sooner, the risk of finding a glitch or mistake, or dealing with a failure may well come and haunt you. Considerably more cost can be expended than was saved and the associated time, that most precious commodity, is forever lost.
Eventually the squares are trimmed to become circles and the once flat surfaces become curves. This causes us to quickly and easily lose sight of the very real risks that can lurk around those shaved corners.
Beating Round the Bush
Avoiding the important issues and focusing on the peripheral matters is an unfortunate managerial trait when it comes to decision making. Parkinson’s ‘Law of Triviality’ is alive and well in many projects. Protracted discussions proliferate as people pontificate on minor and inconsequential matters while the main issues bubble away out of sight and for the trivialists, out of mind.
Less and less time is available for the real matter at large which, more than likely, carries the most risk. By evading the problem time is lost and the opportunity to get to the crux of a matter and consider it both properly, and rationally, is lost. The effort taken to sort through the chaff of the trivia thrown up to avoid discussing the elephant in the room is also lost, or is it merely to wear down decision makers and their resolve.
The radius at the centre of the bush, where the main issue(s) reside, is considerably smaller than when we skirted around its original periphery. As we beat towards the centre the bushes’ radii decreases while the possibility of risk and its frequency of recurrence increase proportionally and we can become exhausted.
How often do we hear “I’ll do that when I get around to it”. This is procrastination with today’s tasks being put off until tomorrow. This can then lead to the presumption that “if we can put it off till tomorrow what we should have done yesterday, why not put it off till next week”.
This eventually leads to something, if not many things, being ignored completely, or at best being late. The ‘Round Tuit’ can mitigate this risk by providing a snake oil to allow the actionees’ tasks, which they had no intention of starting, let alone finishing, to be completed on time, in sequence and in budget
Ever Decreasing Circles
Rather than identifying an issue and focusing on a solution how often is the end result a circular argument. Discussions go around and around, and around, in circles. Opinions are proposed and defended rather than evaluating the facts and coming to a logical conclusion.
These arguments, rather than meaningful debate and logical discussion, become a war of attrition between opposing factions and time, effort and money are wasted. Other issues are quickly side-lined and, despite falling by the wayside to be resurrected later, we end up with smaller and smaller radii circles. The outcome is increased risk because of continuous disagreement and consequential indecision or, disappointingly untimely decisions.
Astronomically it will end up like a black hole. The resultant singularity ends up with the disappearance of the issue at hand and the manifestation of the consequences.
When designing a project, or bidding for a contract, we often round-up and round-down while we are calculating. But such rounding can result in errors and, inevitably risk.
In 1999 NASA’s multimillion-dollar Mars Climate Orbiter was destroyed in Mars’ atmosphere because of a rounding in the conversion from Imperial to metric units. The Orbiter was but one of a series of major spaceflight failures that year destroying billions of dollars’ worth of satellites or leaving them spinning in useless orbits.
Closer to home if one rounds an inch to 25mm (not 25.4mm) it may be OK for a couple of feet. Over, 10 miles you’ll be short by about a 1/6th of a mile and over 1,000 miles this would be 25km. Rounding can be a real risk.
Procrastination and getting round to doing something later rather than sooner are all too true as we become distracted in our hectic lives. Things that should happen don’t; nothing gets done and as inaction increases so does the likelihood of risks and their consequences.
If we can see risks then they can be avoided but how often is a project team blinkered or blindsided so they and cannot see the bigger picture. Their limited view of their playing field may give the impression of flatness but it’s curved, and the tighter the curve the less far we can see. This failure to see obviates the opportunity to mitigate risk.
With a broader view the bigger picture emerges and the opportunity to manage risks increases. However, even an infinite level field has a radius and what goes around comes around, eventually. If a risk is avoided on the first revolution, no matter how long it takes, it will come around again. And if, or rather when, it does come around we will have to deal with its consequences…project risk is always a round.
Malcolm Peart is an UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.