“Risk blindness”- how to spot it and what to do about it

We’ve all been there, in a risk review for a major change programme, team gathered round, and you ask, “What are our major risks?” There’s suddenly a lot of shoe staring, a bit of throat clearing, and a tumbleweed rolling by.

Identifying and managing risk is now an integral part of the governance structures in most organisations, there are certainly more risk tools and templates than you could use in a career. So why do so many projects and organisations still suffer from poorly identified and badly managed risks whose impact could have been avoided? No organisation can afford to let that happen.


Why do people find it difficult to see risk?

For some people it’s all too personal, it’s an affront to their capability to suggest that something might not go exactly as planned. This is a hard barrier to cross, but it needs to be explored by trying to steer the individual to see the wider project or programme context to make it less personal.

There are also the active risk deniers who have the attitude this is all very easy it can’t possibly go wrong, therefore just don’t bother planning for the “unhappy” path. This isn’t just something you find in the young and inexperienced, it can pervade even senior ranks. It’s often coupled with a lack of ownership of the resulting failure, so the impact is exacerbated. It can also make the situation of a team member saying, “I knew that would happen” after a failure, more likely as their concerns were ignored or never even voiced.

Alternately, some people don’t have the ability to extrapolate an event or activity to see what might happen. Individuals very focussed on their own task and not aware of their place in the full picture may not see where problems they encounter may lead.

There will always be some risks you don’t see coming, the bombshell risks, for example legislative change and let’s face it, who would have put global pandemic on their risk register. For these and other areas outside the control or view of the project, such as company mergers and internal resource availability, you need a good steering group to help you manage through it. (See our article on establishing and running great steering groups by clicking here)


How can you constructively tease out risks?

Focussing on risks can be an emotional downer for a team; the voice of a Cassandra bringing bad luck. But it should be a much more constructive process, sharing individual worries, recognising problems, understanding what can be done to solve or improve them, working out what is in your power to change and what isn’t and needs your steering group to help. Altogether, it helps to give everyone more certainty the work will successfully complete on time.

One way to try and get ideas flowing and trigger a dialogue on risk is to ask each member of the group what they’re worried about. Very few people don’t have any worries. Each item might not be a risk in its own right but it’s dragging down a member of your team and that as well as the worry itself may have an impact.

Another approach is to try to get everyone to visualise how events will play out by asking “what will you do if …?”. This brings the potential scenario to life and individuals can see their role in thinking how to avoid the situation in the first place and what they would do if it did happen. This approach prompts people to think, “I really don’t want that to happen. I’ll make sure it doesn’t”.

But risk identification must be followed through with real ownership and an unrelenting determination to do something about them. If risks are only given lip service, there’s no incentive to continue engaging in the risk process. There must be a team drive that “we don’t let this happen”.


Do you need change expertise?

At Project One, our team of change experts have been through many years of challenging deliveries. We know where delivery pain points are likely to be and have the experience to help you visualise and articulate the risks and routes to addressing them. We know that to be successful in any piece of work, the risks need to be identified, actively owned and managed throughout its life.


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POSTED BY: Cherly Ashman - Consultant

CONTACT: cheryl.ashman@projectone.com

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