Learning from early applications

When the introduction of formal RMPs into an organization is part of a long-term change in project management and organizational culture, usually a desirable position to adopt, it is very important to see early applications as part of a corporate learning process. Viewed in this light, the effectiveness of an RMP relates to benefits derived from subsequent application of risk management in later projects, as well as benefits for the project of immediate concern. Over time, an understanding of both the costs and the benefits of alternative approaches can be developed that will inform choices about short cuts in subsequent applications. This implies that the first project an organization subjects to the kind of RMP discussed in this book should be carefully selected to facilitate these longer-term benefits. As an example of taking this to the limit, the very first application of the SCERT (Synergistic Contingency Planning and Review Technique) approach (Chapman, 1979) with BP International was a 'passive' and retrospective analysis of a project just completed, to polish the process before its first test on a 'live' project. Most organizations do not need a 'passive' test, but it is very useful to see the first application as a test and as a learning experience, an approach the authors have taken with a number of clients who successfully introduced their own variants of a SHAMPU-like process.

As a simple analogy, consider planning to sail a yacht across the English Channel from Southampton to Cherbourg for the first time. Reading a few sailing magazines will soon make it clear that it is a good idea to make the first crossing in daylight, in spring (when days are longest), starting at dawn, with stable weather conditions forecast for several days ahead. Given this starting position, project planning and an associated RMP based on a simplistic approach to navigation would suffice: assuming you take the Isle of Wight on your left, head due south from the Needles until you hit the French coast, then turn right. However, such easy crossings allow time for refining navigation skills, making course corrections that are designed to enhance knowledge rather than minimize crossing time, making frequent checks with positioning instruments, and using visual checks where feasible. Developing effective and efficient navigating skills for other conditions requires practice using formalized methods with ample time to compare and contrast alternative ways of determining the position (location) of the yacht. This learning process should be fun. Most people who go into project management as a career need a measure of fun to keep them on the job, as well as the stimulation of challenges to meet. A bit more fun and a bit less challenge than the norm can be a useful bias for early learning experiences. The saying 'there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no bold old pilots' does not apply directly to project staff, but some of the bolder young project staff need to be explicitly taken on a few Channel crossings with a pleasurable learning experience before letting them attempt more challenging crossings like the Atlantic Ocean. Navigating through a high-risk project can be much more difficult than crossing the Channel in a yacht and in general warrants more attention to formality, not less.

The above ideas apply to choosing an appropriate level of sophistication in the first attempt at an RMP of the kind discussed in this book, as well as choosing an appropriate project. As most people who have acquired some of their wisdom via the 'school of hard knocks' know, making mistakes is the only way to learn some of life's more important lessons, but it is important not to make mistakes that kill or cripple future opportunities. If mistakes are inevitable, we need to make mistakes we can live with. Continuing the Southampton to Cherbourg sailing analogy, it is advisable to aim to hit the French coast several miles uptide and/or upwind of the destination, because it is comparatively easy to alter course at the last minute in a downwind and downtide direction, but comparatively difficult to do so upwind against the tide. We know we will get it wrong to some extent, and the error is not symmetric in its effect, so we aim for low-cost errors. The magnitude of error assumed should reflect our proven navigation skill. Choosing a low level of sophistication for a first RMP and observing the results is like hitting the French coast in the dark with no position-finding instruments and no knowledge of the coast. If you can safely assume you are uptide and upwind you can drift downwind and downtide until what looks like a major harbour comes into view. This is comparable with choosing a high level of sophistication for a first RMP with a view to adjusting toward simpler RMPs as experience is gained. If you don't know which side of Cherbourg you are, you have a potential major problem on your hands. If you start with sophisticated RMPs, then simplify as experience is gained, you will be clear 'which side of Cherbourg you are on' in RMP terms.

An excessively sophisticated RMP will be a handicap, as will an excessively difficult project. But learning requires a challenge, and only by using a bit more sophistication than we need can we recognize when and where it is safe to take short cuts. As experience is gained, the emphasis can move from RMPs as a general risk management learning experience in the context of effective use from the outset for all projects considered, to RMPs as an effective and efficient way to deal with immediate concerns. Short cuts can be taken in the light of an understanding of how much effort will be saved by the short cuts and what the likely impact will be on the effectiveness of the project management process as a whole.

Most organizations first use a formal RMP because of an organizational imperative: sometimes imposed by 'nature', sometimes imposed by regulators, bankers, or other interested parties. However, once formal RMPs are in place, most organizations have expanded their motives as an appreciation of the benefits has been acquired. In the past organizations have tended to 'learn the hard way', as have the authors. There is now no need for organizations to 'learn the hard way' to such an extent. The pioneers took a decade to learn what first-time users can now learn in a year. This doesn't mean there will be no learning curve. But to use the Southampton to Cherbourg sailing analogy yet again, other people have now made the crossing lots of times and written about their experiences, in some cases with guidance about specific crossings. The International Journal of Project Management, particularly since 1990, is one good source of project risk management experience that may provide cases relevant to the reader's circumstances.

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