Like most other PMP’s, I can be inordinately preoccupied with earning PDUs toward recertification. The activities I pursue toward recertification are among my most important endeavors as I seek to improve my project management skills.
If we are truly going to call ourselves professionals, we must look to the other professions that require continuing education credits (medicine, law, accounting, etc.) and emulate the recognition and improvement that the recertification process can bring to our occupation. The project management profession is still in its infancy, and there are a number of academicians and practitioners working hard to advance our body of knowledge and test it in practical settings.
Part of my responsibility as a PMP is to keep abreast of these developments, and to continue to test concepts in the projects with which I am involved. And so I have really come to enjoy the process of earning PDU’s—through writing and volunteerism with PMI NYC, but particularly through course work.
One of the courses I recently elected to take covered advanced tips and tricks for Risk Management. I selected the course for several reasons. First, it would earn me 14 PDUs. Second, I was familiar with the instructor, and knew her to be a very practical educator, always looking to re-enforce concepts with exercises that help the students ‘get it.’ I also selected the course based on my suspicion that risk management – particularly risk identification – is a major differentiator in project success.
Risk identification may be one of the few things on this Earth where too much is not enough. The course offered tips and tricks for the entire risk management process cycle (identification, qualification, quantification, response, and control), but for this article I focus upon a particular risk identification technique that encourages participation from quieter stakeholders. The instructor reinforced key concepts early on, namely that the more risks identified the better.
As we all know, some participants in a project (present company included) can be more vocal than others. This however does not mean that the quiet stakeholders don’t identify risks, but that they are not participating in the risk identification session. Essentially, risks were being left on the table.
In the past I had customarily gathered risks using an Excel matrix, or digital form. The instructor took a decidedly less technical approach: she handed out custom sticky notes to the team. The risk sticky note simplified risk identification by having people write down a risk but not categorize it, describe it, or rate it during the identification session.
With a sample work breakdown structure (WBS) as our companion to the case study, we were instructed to identify risks that might happen at specific points in the WBS. The instructor cautioned us not to talk about the risks while we wrote them down. Essentially, we were a room of students writing quietly for 15 minutes during the exercise.
The result: an astonishing number of risks were identified in two different classroom groups. Two of the quieter members of the class had remarkably yielded the highest number of risks! Then we learned the other strength of the sticky note technique: we could then move the paper around to classify a risk, relate it to project tasks, and assign it to a risk owner.
This isn’t impossible to do with a form or an Excel file, but the technique made it much easier and quicker to do. For instance, after identifying the risks we created an affinity diagram – a simple technique where the participants silently place the sticky notes for similar risks together on the wall. Then, as a group we discussed the names for the categories of risks that we had created, and wrote the category name on each individual risk’s sticky note.
During this exercise, we were able to gather even more risks, and to begin to understand how the risks might impact our project. I found that the sticky note technique made it easier to develop the affinity diagram than when using MS Excel. After the affinity diagram we mapped all the risks to the WBS on one entire wall of the classroom.
This technique elicited even more risks than before! It seemed that every time we ‘touched’ the risk sticky notes, more ideas would flow about potential task-based risks on our projects. And again, as with the affinity diagram, I found it easier and quicker to relate risks to tasks by writing the WBS codes on sticky notes than it was when I used MS Excel to do the same thing.
We practiced several other techniques for risk identification that I was familiar with (Historical record analysis, Delphi technique, expert interview, standard lists of risks), but the sticky note technique was so impressive to me that I resolved to try it out on a real-life project.
Back at work, we were starting a particularly pesky, multi-national project with the potential for some cultural and language issues—risks that we had rarely contended with in the past. I had worked with the executive sponsor of this particular project before so I knew that he would be amenable to trying the sticky note technique out. Unlike other risk identification sessions where I would do the writing myself, I brought a scribe with me so that I could focus on managing the session while he took notes and organized the sticky notes as needed.
When I first presented the technique to the customer, and as I handed out the risk sticky note pads, there were definitely some skeptical faces around the room! One woman looked as though she was going to kill me.
In speaking with her about it later, she confided that she was uncomfortable to have had a surprise assignment in a meeting—kind of like a pop quiz – and she felt like she was being put on the spot. Since she did not know what was expected—she had never done this technique before—she was concerned about what to do, and so her first reaction was negative. Since I deliberately did not share the rest of the risk management techniques with her (qualification and so on), she complained that she “did not know where we were going with this.” However, she ended up being the participant in the risk session who had the most risks identified. Once she got the feel for the technique, she did remarkably well.
In hindsight, I might recommend that when rolling out the protocol to people that have never tried this technique before, try describing how the session will go a few days before the actual meeting. I would perhaps hand out the risk sticky notes ahead of time so that participants will be less anxious about the session’s format. Being available to talk with a participant in advance of the session might help to reduce the performance anxiety.
Looking around the room during our session, I found that most of the participants were busy writing on the sticky notes. While the majority of the stakeholders were writing new sticky notes feverishly , a few were getting hung up on writing long descriptions for a risk, which was slowing them down. I chose not to interrupt the process to coax them to write shorter risks, but in the future I would recommend driving the point home to the participants to keep it short and not to worry about describing the risk yet. Speed and quantity is of the essence.
The results were impressive: We gathered more than twice the number of risks than we had done on previous projects of similar scope and complexity. Admittedly this is a hard thing to sell to some my colleagues at PMI, since it would have been better for me to have tried this with a control group at the same customer. But the important point here is that, having performed risk identification sessions for a decade now, this was the first time I really felt like I had a flexible way to get all the stakeholders involved in the session. In my opinion, both the yield and the rapid progress of the risk identification meeting have me sold on this technique.
We have begun to standardize this technique at my company; we will test it a few more times to iron out the kinks. But even in its first use, this technique promises to improve the way we manage our projects.
Once again, I’m convinced that earning those PDU’s really does help me improve the way I do my job as a project manager!
Joseph Bachana is President and CEO of DPCI (www.dpci.com), a professional services firm that delivers customized technology solutions for organizations that publish to multiple media.
By Joseph Bachana, PMP