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 . Order Now! .

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More articles on Project Management:

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Prudent risk management begins by accepting the possibility that unpleasant events might actually happen. But when organizations try to achieve goals that are a bit out of reach, they're often tempted to stretch resources by revising or denying risks. Here's a tactic for managing risk revision.
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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.
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Some organizations consistently choose not to allocate enough resources or time to planning for their most complex undertakings. Again and again, they decline to plan carefully enough despite the evidence of multiple disappointments and chaotic performance. Resource contention and cognitive biases conspire to sustain this cycle of dysfunction.
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Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule.
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When we experience success, we're more likely to develop overconfidence. And when the success is so extreme as to induce astonishment, we become even more vulnerable to overconfidence. It's a real risk of success that must be managed.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
Tuckman's stages of group developmentAnd on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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