The more I think about the idea of finding what can go right, the more I think it’s a basic attitude shift that we need to apply to everything we do in project management. Whether it’s managing risks, managing scope, or solving problems, the tools and techniques we use can be flipped a bit in our minds to also find ways to maximize what can go right.
Project managers love solving problems. It may be that we become project managers for this very reason. We LOVE solving problems. We look for problems to solve everywhere. Work, home, and Angry Birds. We like projects because most projects are about solving problems. We ask “What problem are we trying to solve?” when we need to focus our team on the objectives of a project. But, do we let our bias for solving problems cloud our ability to use our problem solving talents to find what can go right on our projects?
My blog title comes from the idea that “the other side of risk” is finding what can go right instead of focusing on what can go wrong. Risk management techniques recognize that finding right is part of risk management by identifying that missed opportunities are a form of risk. But, this more positive aspect of risk management typically only gets recognized, not explored. Read the PMBOK about risk management and you will see what I mean. What if you really explored for opportunities that you shouldn’t miss with the same vigor you apply to identify and mitigate negative risks? You might have a risk list that included:
- Team members will learn new skills
- We will find productive long term vendor partners
- Clients involved in the project will enjoy collaborating with us and add to our business
- We will find and solve problems we weren’t aware of at the start of the project
We could use our risk management skills to discuss the probability of these opportunities occurring, their impact and value, what would trigger them, and how we mitigate by taking appropriate steps to ensure that they Do happen. If they do, the project might add more value to the business and to the organization as a whole.
Scope management has a less obvious but similar influence from problem solving bias. How do we define and manage scope? Well, we probably start with our project objectives and then identify the work that has to be done to meet them. We form the work into specific deliverables that we can use to create a work breakdown structure. This often defines our entire scope. If it’s not in the work breakdown structure, we don’t spend resources on it. We schedule the work in the work breakdown structure. We carefully manage any changes to the deliverables and the changes’ impact on the work breakdown structure and the schedule. We control scope and scope change.
When we define scope, do we include the things that can go right in the project? Just like we could use risk analysis for finding opportunities, we could use scope definition as an opportunity to find what can go right. The “rights” we find could become project outcomes that are then translated into deliverables on which we spend time and resources. Do we include scope for learning, building new relationships, or taking time to address newly discovered opportunities or problems? We might do so by adding contingency, but this isn’t an intentional accommodation for what can go right. Instead, we could include all outcomes of our project in our scope, including the things that we want to go right during the journey and at the end.
So, back to problem solving – our favorite thing. One of the best problem solving techniques is root cause analysis. A quick scan of Google will find that it’s used in many disciplines. The best I can find, it originated in the Toyota Production System (TPS) and its evolution to lean, which led to total quality management and similar disciplines. Root cause analysis is always described as a problem solving technique. But, we could also use it to find the root causes of right. Suppose you just completed a project or part of a project and it went really well. Being a good project manager, you will close it out and do a lessons learned session. You and your team will acknowledge that things went really well, but will you, after documenting the lessons learned, really understand the root causes of why things went right? Will you have asked “why” five times (see TPS)? Do you do a fishbone diagram to find the root causes of the rights? You could. You could apply problem solving to understanding things that are the opposite of problems.
When I was in the Air Force I had a wonderful experience called Squadron Officers School. At SOS, several hundred junior officers come together in Alabama to learn to be better leaders, team players, and managers. We were organized into teams of 12 – a flight. The flights competed against one another academically and in leadership and teamwork oriented activities like sports. We set goals, organized, and found ways to maximize our performance. Each flight had two senior officer advisors. Our primary leader was Major Pat. Major Pat was a fiery little fighter pilot who was going to make us better at what we did. Our flight came out on the short end of athletic prowess. We played soccer, volleyball, and a sport called flickerball that was a cross between football, rugby, and basketball. Three soccer matches and a volleyball match passed with no wins. We had been pretty tough on ourselves after each match trying to understand what was going wrong. Volleyball match two was different. Everything came together and we won convincingly. In our post match celebration, Major Pat yelled at all of us “So, what did you do wrong?” That quieted us down. What had we done wrong? Someone yelled “Nothing!” followed by a dramatic pause and then more cheering. Major Pat smiled. “So, what did you do right?” he shouted. Another pause, more smiles, and then a flood of ideas on what had gone right that was way more useful than our past problem solving. Our klutzy crew finished the school winning more than we lost. Major Pat continued to remind us that it was more important to know what we were doing right than what we were doing wrong. That stuck.
So, as your projects originate, plan, progress, and close, you can find what can go right (or did go right), understand why, and make the most of it by using the project management skills you already have. You just have to flip your attitude.
Thanks for reading.
Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012