Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 17;   April 28, 2010: Project Improvisation and Risk Management

Project Improvisation and Risk Management

by

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.
Captain Robert F. Scott and most of his team returning from the South Pole

Captain Robert F. Scott and most of his team returning from the South Pole. The photo was taken by Lt. Henry R. "Birdie" Bowers, Royal Indian Marine Service. On the way South, Bowers had been a member of the sledge team of Lt. Evans, whose team was the last to return before the assault on the Pole. Scott had ordered Evans's team to depot their skis a few days before they parted, probably as a result of competition between Evans and Scott. At the last moment, Scott ordered Bowers to accompany the Pole team, making a complement of five, instead of four that had been planned. This factor is often cited as a decision — it was an improvisation, actually — that contributed to the fate of the expedition (all five men died). But the nature of the improvisation might not have been what it seemed. Since Bowers was a navigator, and the expedition needed a navigator in the Pole party, the selection of Bowers was perhaps inevitable. But others in the party were less essential. For instance, one man was selected, in all probability, to represent enlisted men, and another to represent the Army. Thus, Scott's decision had many of the elements of an improvisation driven by factors unrelated to project content. If it had been driven by project content, he could easily have substituted Bowers for someone else.

The improvisational nature of the decision is evidenced by this photo. It shows four men on ski. The photographer, Bowers, was probably on foot at this point, because of Scott's earlier decision to have the last support team depot their ski. The combination of four skiers and one man on foot almost certainly contributed to the fate of the five men.

Photo courtesy National Library of New Zealand

We've already examined the fundamentals of improvisation, and improvisation as a group process. We now examine its impact on risk management. Because improvisation will almost certainly be necessary in most projects, we ought to anticipate it by allocating budget, schedule, and management time to address improvisations. Here are some suggestions for adjusting risk plans once improvisation becomes necessary.

Directed improvisation is risky
Sometimes decision-makers demand improvisation. Directed improvisation entails unique risks, because the director might not be very familiar with the project, its technology, or its staff. When improvisation is directed, defer as much as possible, until the consequences of the directed improvisation become clear.
Improvising without content-related cause is risky
Some improvising happens even when the project plan seems to be working well. On these occasions, the drivers of the decision to improvise are unrelated to the project work itself, and often are related to the use of the deliverables. For instance, the decision-maker might seek delivery during a fiscal window earlier than planned. The more sudden the decision is, the riskier it is.
The need to improvise could be a signal
Even though projects are inherently difficult to plan, a real need to improvise can result from a poor plan — or no plan. If a truly thoughtful plan does exist, the need to improvise signals nothing more than the inherent difficulties of project management. But if the project plan was developed in haste, perhaps by cloning plans for supposedly similar work, further trouble probably lies ahead.
Improvisations can create timing risks
If improvisation is necessary, the project schedule is probably changed or even disrupted. Usually, task schedules slip to later dates. Examine the new schedule to determine whether necessary resources are still available. This is especially tricky when resources are shared with other projects.
Improvisations tend to transfer risk
Any work undertaken during improvisation could potentially require resources that were allocated to something else, including other projects. The effects of improvisation can therefore The effects of improvisation
can ripple widely
through the organization
ripple widely through the organization. Improvisations in one project kick off improvisations elsewhere, which can sometimes export risk as well. Be alert to improvisations wherever they occur, and address them in your risk plan.
Improvisations enhance creativity risk
Improvisation requires — and stimulates — creativity. In the project context, a successful improvisation can bring to light new approaches to work already completed, planned, or underway. Sometimes this new thinking is helpful or even necessary, and should be applied. And sometimes it isn't really essential. Apply new ideas where necessary, and manage creativity risk — the temptation to use good ideas to improve what is already good enough.

Whatever the reason for improvisation, an often-neglected set of consequences lies hidden in the project's risk plan. Record carefully the improvised actions undertaken, and when normal activity resumes, immediately revisit the risk plan. If you don't, you might be improvising again before you know it. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Problem Not-Solving  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just USD 19.95. Order Now! .

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmzusJcpaUSGJlYtEner@ChaczlMFUQIUmpnHfONYoCanyon.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:

Moving the goal postsAre You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?
When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.
Finger PuzzlesFinger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
Emergency extrication trainingEmergency Problem Solving
In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.
Vortex cores about an F18 fighter jetGuidelines for Sharing "Resources"
Often, team members belong to several different teams. The leaders of teams whose members have divided responsibilities must sometimes contend with each other for the efforts and energies of the people they share. Here are some suggestions for sharing people effectively.
Gachi Fernandez and Sergio Cortazzo, professional tango coupleScope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.

See also Project Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

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

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.