By Burkhardt Prigge

Your project plan is in place, work packages sequenced and scheduled, resources budgeted and lined up, everything ready to go. But before a project is implemented, there is an essential next step that is often overlooked.

Once a project plan is in place, it is essential to take the time to identify and prepare for things that could go wrong. You need to identify where problems could go wrong, which problems have the greatest potential risk, and what actions you will take to prevent or contain them.

Is this just a pessimistic waste of time and are you simply looking for trouble? Actually this essential next step is a proactive step that removes problems before things go wrong, saves you from future hassles, and, if things do go awry, you can minimize their impact.

To minimize risk in the planning stage use this six-step Potential Problem Analysis process:

  1. Identify areas in the project plan where the potential for problems is highest or could most severely impact success
  2. Identify the specific things that could go wrong
  3. List the likely causes for these problems
  4. Plan actions to prevent these causes from happening
  5. Plan actions that minimize the impact if the problems do occur
  6. Modify the project plan to include these actions

In a complex project, this should be done for any work packages that are particularly complex, new or have failed before, especially when they are on the critical path. Things to consider could include everything from natural phenomena, bad estimates, or poorly skilled staff, to changes in requirements, shortages or scheduling conflicts. By choosing the potential problems that will have the most serious impact on the plan and considering the likely causes, you can take preventive actions now that will reduce the chances of things going wrong later. For example, in an IT project, you identify the delay in the installation of an email application as having a big impact on the project and the organization. The likely cause could be that IT is not familiar enough with the similar but new email application, and a preventive action could be to send someone from IT for training well before installation.

While preventive actions can reduce risk significantly, things can still go wrong. It is also important to consider contingent actions to take that will minimize damage should problems occur. These actions need a trigger to warn you that the potential problem has occurred, and if necessary, this can initiate a contingent action. It is essential to know what is likely to happen should a potential problem occur so that appropriate actions are taken. For example, you are launching a new foot powder and a potential problem is “an allergic reaction by customers causes negative publicity.” A trigger might be when “X number of customers report an allergic reaction,“ and the contingent action addressing negative publicity could be to “submit test results to the media demonstrating product safety.”

When your potential problem analysis is complete, the preventive actions, contingent actions and triggers should be added to the project plan for the work packages. When the project is underway and the danger of the potential problem has passed, any preparations for contingent actions can be removed to avoid unnecessary costs.

Managing risks to your project is time well spent. By reducing the likelihood that problems will occur and by being ready to act should they occur, you can dramatically influence the likelihood of completing your project on time, within budget, and with acceptable performance.

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