Projects Are Inherently Risky Business
One of the most important responsibilities of a project manager, according to veteran senior project manager Tom Kendrick, is to identify and manage the variety of risks associated with the project. Kendrick is the author of Identifying and Managing Project Risk: Essential Tools for Failure-Proofing Your Project, which is now in its third edition. Detailed, well-organized and comprehensive, Identifying and Managing Project Risk takes you through the planning, assessment and responses required for any kind of project of any size.
For the past 20 years, Kendrick has been collecting anonymous data on project problems from hundreds of project leaders. From this database, Kendrick has identified the three types of project risks encountered by project managers, based on their root causes: scope, schedule and resources.
Scope risk occurs either in the form of changes to the scope or what the author calls defects — in other words, not being able to deliver what is expected. Schedule risk can either be 1) delays, 2) faulty estimates of the time required to accomplish the activities of the project or 3) slippage due to factors outside the project. Problems with people, external staff and/or money are the causes of resource risks.
In the first half of the book, Kendrick focuses on identifying these three types of project risks. For scope risks, for example, he suggests
- Clearly defining project deliverables, noting the challenges.
- Setting limits on the project based on the value of the deliverables.
- Breaking down the project into small pieces.
- Assigning ownership for all project work.
- Noting any risk that might arise from the expected project duration or complexity.
In the second half of the book, he focuses on risk assessment (including qualitative and quantitative analyses) and responses to risks at both the different activity levels and at the overall project level.
For example, he sets down the following rules for managing activity risks:
- Determine root causes.
- Avoid, mitigate or transfer risks whenever feasible.
- Develop contingency plans for the remaining risks.
- Document risk plans, and keep the data visible.
- Monitor all risks in your risk register.
- “Thirty grams of prevention is worth half a kilogram of cure (approximately).”
Documenting risk plans is accomplished through a detailed listing of all risks that includes information such as a description of the risk, the owner of the risk, activities impacted by the risk, quantitative and qualitative risk-analysis results, proposed risk response actions, risk triggers, residual risk exposure and contingency plans.
Lessons from the Panama Canal
An entertaining and illuminating feature of the book is the story of the building of the Panama Canal, which Kendrick uses as the thread tying all the steps together. Thus, each chapter ends with an evocative story or stories from the Panama Canal project that illustrate the lessons of the chapter.
The building of the Panama Canal is one of the great engineering achievements, although perhaps underrated today. Kendrick shows how the leaders of the project, notably John Stevens and General George Washington Goethals, were able to complete the Panama Canal by following the same processes as described in his methodology. After Roosevelt’s first project manager resigned, declaring that building the canal was a mistake, Stevens arrived and immediately set about pinning down the scope of the project. Stevens “determined exactly how the canal should be built, to the smallest detail,” Kendrick writes. “The United States would build an 80-kilometer lock-and-dam canal … with a budget of U.S. $375 million, to open in 1915. With the scope defined, the path forward became clear.”
At 400 pages, Identifying and Managing Project Risk is not a quick read. But as Kendrick shows, anyone in a hurry should not be managing projects to begin with. Undoubtedly, they will follow in the footsteps of de Lesseps and avoid the rigorous risk planning required to successfully bring any project to fruition.