Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 50;   December 10, 2014: On the Risk of Undetected Issues: I
"

On the Risk of Undetected Issues: I

by

In complex projects, things might have gone wrong long before we notice them. Noticing them as early as possible — and addressing them — is almost always advantageous. How can we reduce the incidence of undetected issues?
The damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, as seen from the command module

The damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, as seen from the command module. The damage was caused when an oxygen tank exploded as a result of damaged insulation on a wire powering a sensor inside the tank, according to the findings of the Apollo 13 Review Board, which conducted a post-mission investigation. In effect, the investigation discovered the undetected issue, even though the Board did not have access to the Service Module, which was destroyed on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. The Board's analysis demonstrates that, in principle, the issue could have been detected prior to launch. Photo courtesy US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Language and terminology are the tools we use to express our thoughts. But language and terminology can do much more — they can actually influence the way we think. And that influence isn't always helpful.

Consider risk. In project management, and fields closely related, there's an ongoing conversation about differences between the term risk and the term issue. Although disagreement and confusion persist, most people agree about two points. First, a risk is an event or condition that might or might not occur, while an issue is an event or condition that has already occurred, or which will certainly occur. Second, both risks (if they occur) and issues have adverse consequences for objectives.

The principal difference between risks and issues is that risks have probability less than 100%; issues have probability 100%.

This distinction leaves at least one situation uncovered: what do we call adverse events that have occurred (or which certainly will occur), but which as yet have escaped notice? I call them undetected issues. Undetected issues can be problematic, because although we treat them as risks, they aren't risks at all.

How does all this relate to our use of language? When we think of undetected issues as risks, we tend to regard them as not yet having happened, as opposed to having happened and not yet having been detected. Thinking about them this way can be problematic. For example, thinking of a condition as not yet having happened can lead to dismissing as pointless — or not worthwhile — any plan to determine whether or not it has already occurred. Why search for something that hasn't happened?

On the other hand, we might be more willing to expend resources to uncover the presence of undetected issues. When we do search, we're more likely to find them.

For example, consider the mission of Apollo XIII. A liquid oxygen tank exploded during Hour 55 of the mission due to When we think of undetected issues
as risks, we tend to regard them
as not yet having happened, as
opposed to having happened
and not yet having been detected
damaged insulation on wires inside the tank, which resulted from procedures executed years earlier. Before installation in the vehicle, the damage was a risk. After installation, it was not a risk at all — it was an undetected issue. And post-incident, a thorough investigation did uncover the undetected issue. How would the mission have been affected if NASA — before launch — had conducted a more thorough search for undetected issues?

Many project teams now develop risk management plans. Few of these plans address the risk of undetected issues. If we think clearly about the distinctions among issues, risks, undetected issues, and the risk of undetected issues, we're more likely to include mechanisms in the design of our systems — and procedures, schedule, and resources in the design of our projects — that facilitate detecting as-yet-undetected issues.

We'll explore some practices that can help teams uncover undetected issues next time. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: On the Risk of Undetected Issues: II  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenvbbyDyRcyurQoTxkner@ChacELrFNXJOVydNjQFLoCanyon.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:

The Marx brothers: Chico, Harpo, Groucho and ZeppoTINOs: Teams in Name Only
Perhaps the most significant difference between face-to-face teams and virtual or distributed teams is their potential to develop from workgroups into true teams — an area in which virtual or distributed teams are at a decided disadvantage. Often, virtual and distributed teams are teams in name only.
Carl Philipp Gottfried von ClausewitzLong-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog
In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
Flooding in Metarie, Louisiana, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources. Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
Congestion on a U.S. highwayNonlinear Work: When Superposition Fails
Much of the work we do is confounding, because we consistently underestimate the effort involved, the resources required, and the time required to get it done. The failure of superposition can be one reason why we get it wrong.
The Great Wall of China near MutianyuScope Creep and Confirmation Bias
As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.

See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cargo containers at a port of entryComing May 31: Unresponsive Suppliers: III
When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers are a special case. Available here and by RSS on May 31.
A blue peacock of IndiaAnd on June 7: The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate. Available here and by RSS on June 7.

Coaching services

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

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for 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.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
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.