One More Huge Failure to Manage Risks Meant Deaths
In the wake of the insurrection last week, some have talked about a gaping failure to plan, and I don’t disagree. But more importantly, this was a huge failure to manage risks — one of the key project principles that trained project experts understand. It ranks as one of the saddest and most predictable days in my life. Not that I necessarily expected anyone to predict the specifics.
I don’t claim to be an expert in Congressional oversight, but I have written for years about the need to do risk planning and managing. Usually, the failure to think about risks properly results in project delays or financial losses. This time, real human beings with families who loved them, are dead.
It’s not the first time that an apparent failure to manage risks might have been connected to deaths. From explosions, to drug overdoses, to airline crashes, many project managers question, often aware of few published specifics, if there was a failure to manage risks.
Clearly, in this case, some have said there was a failure to plan. But there was an even greater failure to manage risks.
The Capitol Police have assured us that there will be a thorough investigation, but how can we be assured that the lessons learned result in changes? I can’t answer that question. I can offer these three recommendations.
Recognize the reality of bias for what it is.
In a 2014 PMI Conference Paper titled Cognitive biases as project & program complexity enhancers, authors Panos Chatzipanos and Theofanis Giotis wrote that some cognitive biases “manifest automatically and unconsciously over a wide range of human reasoning and frequently result in seeing things that are not really there, in being nonsensical, in just being wrong, and in unintelligently refusing to see the facts. When cognitive biases influence individuals, real — or problematic — complexity may arise. When these biases impact a group, an organization, or a business, the problems can be dramatically worse.”
I’ll discuss two types of bias, though there are others. And advancing brain science is making it increasingly clear that humans come wired with these biases.
Recognize that there is a natural bias to be optimistic. Much of the time that is a good thing. Yet, in project planning this can result in dramatically flawed time estimates — a phenomenon referred to as the planning fallacy.
I am guessing that some optimism bias contributed to the insufficient staffing. This bias can cause wishful thinking to take over in conversations. And people can have a natural tendency to want to appear positive in their statements. Let’s face it. Most of us don’t like hanging out with gloom and doom folks. But there is a time to face reality. And when your team is focusing on risks, that’s not the time to be optimistic.
Confirmation bias is that tendency to hear what we want to hear — to hear data that supports or confirms what we previously thought. We have an inherent bias or tendency to ignore findings which conflict with what we want to believe.
In a 2006 confirmation bias study done at MIT, researchers used fMRI technology to study the brains of committed partisans who were asked questions about information that threatened their preferred presidential candidate in the 2004 (Bush versus Kerry) election. For the first time, researchers watched the neural activity when participants were asked to make judgments when they were presented with data that confirmed or rejected previously held beliefs about their candidates. It was clear from the imaging studies that participants resisted making judgments that would adversely impact previously held beliefs about their preferred candidate. In short, they saw what they wanted to see. The implications of this study have never been clearer.
Have a disciplined project management process in place.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve worked with clients who just thought that planning the tasks and getting them done was all that mattered.
Project management is a disciplined process that takes an idea from conception to results. From starting a project well to planning, execution, management, and closing, a disciplined process is critical. If you know nothing about project management, check out this six-part series on how to manage projects. It begins with a compelling vision and a clear understanding of what success looks like.
Understand that a disciplined risk planning and managing process is a large part of your job. You can read more about risks in this blog that outlines a three-step process for handling risk. But I’ll provide a spoiler alert and tell you now that the key is to make time for teams to sit back and think together. No process, whether it’s a planning process or a risk management process, will work without discipline.
Encourage diversity of thought, reflective listening, and respect.
So many of the problems we make for ourselves come from closing ourselves off from opinions we may not like, failure to really listen to others with different opinions, and being able to act respectfully, especially in emotionally charged situations.
Increasingly, businesses are firing people for hateful, discriminatory, and intolerant social media posts. But how have we gotten to the point where so many people are acting this way? What are the root causes behind these kinds of behaviors?
One concern is that as we silence thought, and as social media companies ban certain people or groups, that we wind up a kind of censorship that may not be helpful. We all need to hear different opinions. But we need to find a way to agree on reality.
Businesses have a role to play in this struggle. Here are three areas of focus.
Diversity of thought
Project leaders and business executives need to build healthy cultures that reward diversity of all kinds, but particularly diversity of thought. No one knows everything. We need to all step back and recognize that we share inherent biases that predispose us to want to be right. But we can’t all be right. There has to be some focus on doing what’s best for the greater good.
Businesses can also teach reflective listening. How many times have you been in a meeting when someone else was talking and you were preparing your next argument or thinking about something that interested you more than the speaker? When was the last time you were speaking and someone in the group actively reflected back to you what you had said and asked a thought provoking question? Would you agree that the second scenario is preferable? Reflective listening is not a skill that we are born with. We have to learn it somewhere and businesses have an obligation to teach it.
Acting with love
I’ll let readers decide whether it’s better to call it acting with love or acting respectfully. Right now, they seem pretty synonymous to me. I hear a lot of businesses and schools talking about encouraging tolerance, but I believe that can actually backfire — when we tolerate the wrong behaviors. Not every behavior is appropriate. And we all behave inappropriately on occasion. We need to call people out when their behavior is wrong. But can we do so with love and respect? And can we forgive people who have behaved poorly and then truly apologized?
I would argue that acting with love changes the way we behave. I’m not talking about a mushy Hallmark kind of love. I’m talking about behaving as though we genuinely care about people. When we do, we focus on developing others, we share the credit for things done well and magnify the results of those around us, and we create joyful organizations. We create environments characterized by open communications, high standards, accountability, and camaraderie. While I don’t want to underestimate the value of analytics and left-brain thinking, our future success depends increasingly on our how we get along with people.
Don’t let a failure to manage risks hold your company back. Learn more in my 8-lesson book.