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If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” – William Isaac Thomas

Besides scope, schedule, cost and people, there are two things that you must be on top of every day as project leader: issues and risks. Be grateful to have them, because it is a good indication that you are making progress.

There are a number of steps to take before you actually want to start responding to issues and risks: define what they are, define the attributes and how to document and manage them.

Definition

When you kick off a new project, you want to sit down with the team and discuss what issues and risks are and how you want to manage them together as a group. A simple definition that works well is the following: “An issue is a problem that has manifested and is right there in the present moment, whereas a risk may turn into a problem in the future when certain conditions become real. Both may need immediate action depending on the assigned severity level”.

There is value in revisiting the definition of issues and risks, as well as the importance of managing them adequately, throughout the project lifecycle. For example, at peak times people tend to forget the need to manage issues and risks, because they want to finish more important work. It is the responsibility of the project leader to observe the adherence and compliance to the process, and intervene when required. A coaching leadership style oftentimes works very well at that point. Take a real problem as a learning opportunity and respond to it as a team.

Attributes and Documentation

Make sure that you document the issue or risk properly by using a simple set of attributes. Because they both describe a problem, the attributes are fairly similar. A major difference is that for risks you want to add a time and probability factor to the calculation of the risk rating, which is equal to the product of probability x impact x time, whereas for issue you define the severity level based on impact. For risks, you want to know when it may turn into an issue, and what the likelyhood is of that. If that’s almost certain to happen next week, the overall risk rating is higher than if it’s a month away from now.

The description of an issue or risk follows a particualr wording structure. For a risk it starts with: “There is a risk that “A”, because of “B”, resulting in “C”, where A = risk, B = root cause or risk trigger, and C = impact or consequence

Example: There is a risk that flights get severely delayed, because of extreme weather, resulting in people not able to get to their destinations on-time

If this risk materializes into an issue, the description changes to: “Flights have been severely delayed, because of extreme weather, resulting in people not able to get to their destinations on-time.

The benefit of using a standard wording structure is that people who are responsible to action them, can quickly understand the issue or risk, and therefore quickly address them. The root cause and impact analysis are very important, because you want to give people who are responsible to action the issue or risk, an accurate reflection of the problem, otherwise they may not react effectively.

There are a few attributes that are very important for managing issues and risks effectively:

  1. Short description: Describe the issue or risk and follow the standard wording structure
  2. Root cause analysis: Describe clearly and concisely the determining, causal factors of the issue or risk
  3. Impact analysis: Describe the impact to the business and project in qualitative and quantitative statements
  4. Severity: Its common to use 4 severity levels, for example: 1-critical, 2-high, 3-medium, 4-low. Each level gives an indication of the impact, exposure, and response time.
  5. Priority: Its commong to use also 4 levels for priority setting, for example: 1-urgent, 2-high, 3-medium, 4-low
  6. Ownership: Assign an owner from the project and from the business who have responsibilities for the funtional or technical area that is impacted. The project and business leader are accountable
  7. Status: Follow a simple standard, for example: 1-new, 2-assigned, 3-analysis completed, 4-in progress, 5-completed, 6-closed

The severity level is set by the project team and is an indication of how critical or undesirable the issue or risk is from a solution perspective. The priority level is set by the business and is an indication of how urgent or fast the issue or risk needs to be actioned. At the start of the project these attributes need to be well defined and tailored to the specific needs of the initiative.

Issue – and risk management process

Once you have documented the issue or risk, the real work begins. You want to implement and consistently follow a simple 3-step issue – and risk management process:

  1. Document: Any project stakeholder should be allowed to identify an issue or risk, but not allowed to document it. Keep the number of people who can document them to a minimum. Think about assigning that responsibility to team leaders. The reason behind this is that the people who documents an issue or risk is able to speak about it. Those people are also attending the meetings where the issue or risk is being handled from a project management perspective
  2. Manage: The project leader is responsible to conduct a recurring meeting with project and business stakeholders where issues and risks are being managed. In such a meeting, each issue and risk is being reviewed, and the severity, priority, ownership and status is being set
  3. Escalate: The higher the severity and priority levels, the higher the chance that issues or risks needs to be escalated to limit impact. Make sure that escalation paths have been defined and agreed to by all stakeholders prior to the project kick-off. Agree to response times from decision makers. Think about how you want to involve external parties in the escalation process, for example subject matter experts, mediators or lawyers. Its best to have that all straightened out and agreed to at the front door, before you begin and not when you are right in the middle of it. At that point it is often too late

The day-to-day responsibility of the project leader is to keep the resolution of issues and risks moving forward. A key part of that is to continuously make stakeholders aware of the status and impact. The project leader needs to use his instincts to trigger the escalation process for issues or risks that are stalling. Be on top of them. Without issues and risks there is no change, and without change no achievement and success.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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The bigger the dream, the more important the team – Robin Sharma

The building blocks of solutions that IT business transformation projects deliver are commonly defined as people, process and technology. Many organizations tend to jump straight to the technology component to argue what the best fit would be for the future state of the business. The next building block in line that gets most attention is process. “Do we adjust the business to industry standards and leading practices, or are we unique and therefore accept modifications of the technology to fit our needs?” Organizations tend to spend so much time on debating technology and process that they forgot about the need of having a qualified project team of internal and external resources that can actually do the work.

Let’s be real. When IT business transformation projects fail, it may appear it is the technology, but in most cases it is not. If it fails, it either has to do with a lack of adequate leadership to move to standards and leading practices, or it is a consequence of not putting a world-class project team together, or a combination of both.

I strongly believe that the people factor is at least as important as process and technology, so not more. At the end of the day, the work gets done by people, and one can only expect world class output if there is world-class input. Here is a list of factors that can be helpful with building a world-class team:

Capability: knowledge, experience, skills, personality, diversity

Pick the right people for the job, and if they don’t seem to be out there, keep looking. When organizations select people, the focus automatically goes to knowledge, experience and skills. That’s perfectly fine as a first set of selection criteria, but in interviews the focus should shift more towards personality and diversity. Does the candidate fit with the team and organization? And what values can the candidate bring to the team that the organization does not have today, but can become very useful down the road? Diversity can be a driver of the ‘creative power’ of the project team as a whole

Intrinsic motivation and passion

You want to build a goal oriented project team, where people have the opportunity to unite business and personal ambitions. Motivation that comes from the inside is propelling a team to greater heights of achievement. Identify those common grounds and shared interests during the selection phase and foster them during the execution through coaching

Work environment

There is a reason why many start-ups and companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook have work environments that are way different and standing out. They recognize that there is an immediate relationship between creativity, productivity, job satisfaction and business performance, and value that by making substantial investments in the work place. An IT business transformation project thrives on creativity and there is no such thing without top talent that feels ‘at home’ and can ‘outperform’ during business hours

Feel safe

In his book ‘Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t’, author Simon Sinek explains that remarkable things happen when there is trust and cooperation within the team. There is a continuous need for each person to feel safe. Sinek means that leaders are responsible to takeaway elements that are perceived as dangerous, and trade them with positive elements like opportunity to grow and succeed, self-confidence, education, and ability to try and fail. If certain conditions are met and the people inside an organization feel safe among each other, they will work together to achieve things none of them could have ever achieved alone. Sinek also mentions that great leaders would never sacrifice the people to safe the numbers, they would sooner sacrifice the numbers to safe the people. The great leader has followers because he cares, not because of the rank, position and authority, as that drives fear. The world-class team of the leader who establishes a ‘feel safe’ environment will be able to consistently deliver a remarkable performance, whereas a leader with the opposite style may at best harvest some short term, mediocre results

Acknowledgement

Studies have shown that a person, who contributes to a work product, wants to receive some level of acknowledgement. People want to feel good about their performance. Deepak Chopra, a well-known author and speaker of alternative medicine and forms of spirituality, found that if a person is using his strengths and the leader:

  1. Acknowledges that, his level of disengagement goes to less than 1%
  2. Ignores him, the level of disengagement goes up with 45%
  3. Criticizes him, the level of disengagement goes down with 25%

It is interesting to see that ignorance is worse than critique.  A leader who wants to be successful with his project team, makes it a habit to provide constructive feedback on an ongoing basis, and understands that ignoring people performance is a no go zone

Effective communication

Leaders who build world-class project teams are strong communicators. They know how to share the right information to the right audience at the right time. They understand that predictability is important for senior leaders to make informed and timely decisions, and for team members to do their job extremely well. An effective approach to make that happen is to have a single plan-on-a-page readily available that provides instant answers to scope, timeline, financials, issues and risks. In world-class project teams, each member has a solid understanding of the vision of the initiative, the path to get there, the individual’s contribution and project performance. Effective communication has become a habit instead of a planned activity

There are more factors that help leaders to build world-class project teams. Think about degree of control, decision autonomy, leadership style, social interaction and team development or growth and learning opportunities. Technology can become a competitive advantage for organizations if they are able to attract top talent that is needed to implement it flawlessly. Therefore a change of mind-set is needed: one that focuses more on people and world-class performance.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©