Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 50;   December 10, 2014:

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 U.S. 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? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.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 U.S. Capitol at nightNepotism, Patronage, Vendettas, and Workplace Espionage
Normally, you terminate or reassign team members who actually inhibit progress. Here are some helpful insights and tactics to use when termination or reassignment is impossible.
In-flight portrait of the Apollo 13 Environmental Control SystemProject Improvisation Fundamentals
Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
An artist's conception of a planetary accretion diskWhy Scope Expands: II
The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchDesign Errors and Groupthink
Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs, because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental causes of design errors.
A home officeAnticipating Absence: Quarantine and Isolation
When the pandemic compels some knowledge workers to quarantine or isolate, we tend to treat them as if they were totally unavailable. But if they're willing and able to work, even part-time, they might be able to continue to contribute. To make this happen, work out conditions in advance.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A gray wolfComing December 15: Do My Job
A popular guideline in modern workplaces is "do your job." The idea is that if we all do our jobs, success is most likely. But some supervisors demand that subordinates do their own jobs, plus the jobs of their supervisors. It rarely works out well. Available here and by RSS on December 15.
A working meeting with an auditorAnd on December 22: Internal Audits Without Pain
If adhering to established procedures is part of your job, you probably experience occasional audits. You can manage the pain of the experience by regarding audit preparation as part of the job. Because it is. Here are some tips for navigating audits. Available here and by RSS on December 22.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.