Watch for Falling Rocks: Unpredictable Risks

©2000 Johanna Rothman,

I was recently driving on some back roads in New Mexico, and saw the sign “Watch for Falling Rocks.” I turned to my husband, Mark, and said “Now, why do they tell us to watch for Falling Rocks? Why don’t they tell us to watch for Fallen Rocks? What in heaven’s name can we do about them, even if we see them?” Mark shrugged and grinned at me. I sighed and said, “It’s a Mystery of Life.”

A few minutes later, I realized that successful project managers watch for falling (and fallen) rocks all the time. They constantly assess risk from all directions, and manage the project’s progress to avoid the falling rocks, as well as other impediments to the project’s success. Some risks you can predict. Other risks you just have to watch for.

I’ve run into falling rocks on projects when:

  • A team member discovered her tumor was a pregnancy, and then gave birth within 48 hours of that discovery.
  • Two team members broke off their up-till-then secret romance.

My falling rocks have all been unpredictable people issues. I’ve been able to manage explicit technical risks, such as new versions of compilers, databases, or other supporting products. The project teams I’ve consulted with have anticipated those kinds of risks. However, we’ve never fully anticipated the people risks.

Unpredictable risks can turn into disaster, as falling rocks can do when you’re driving on back roads. So, what can you do about unpredictable risks?

Observe the project

As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Risks, especially implicit risks, don’t have to be a Mystery of Life. If you pay attention to the people on your project, if you observe what’s going on, and how people are working, you have a better chance of seeing the rocks before they land on your windshield. There are a number of ways to observe your project:

Watch how people on the team interact. Are they collaborating in small groups, or are some people working alone? Should they be working together in larger groups? Are the people working in a way that fits the project’s needs?

How do people feel about the project? Are people excited about their work, or are they just putting in time? Sometimes people just come to work to do their jobs although they’re convinced the effort is futile, but since you’re paying them, they’ll keep working.

Are people not talking about the fallen rocks? I’ve sometimes been hired to consult on projects in which rocks have fallen and no one is talking about them. It’s as if there’s a “Cone of Silence” over the project — other people can see the rocks and talk about them, but the project participants can’t. When that happens, people say things like, “Everything’s fine,” but they say it with a sigh or a frown. Talk to the people on your project in a variety of ways: one-on-ones, over lunch, in the project meeting. Listen to what people say and don’t say, and how they say it.

Is someone unable to do his or her project work? Are other people covering for that person? Do some people regularly come into work late and leave early? Is someone taking a lot of sick time, or seeing the doctor a lot? Look for patterns of behavior that suggests rocks have already fallen. There are numerous reasons for people not to do their project work. Discover the reason, or at least keep an open dialogue with the person having trouble.

Assess the damage

What are the effects of what you’ve observed? How bad is it? When two team members broke off a secret romance, they were no longer secret about their hurt feelings. If I’d ignored them, they would have polarized the group, by making their colleagues choose sides. Since the project team was only eight people, the effects of choosing sides would have paralyzed us. I spoke to both of them separately, and explained that I needed them to exhibit certain behaviors at work. We all agreed they couldn’t and wouldn’t ignore their feelings, but they would attempt to work in a professional, if not collegial manner. If I’d worked in a larger company, I might have asked one or both of them to transfer to other projects. However, in a company of 20 people, there was no other project.

Replan your route

When the team member discovered she was pregnant, instead of sick, we were relieved — surprised, but quite relieved. When she started feeling awful and going to the doctor for tests, we talked about her “illness.” She was concerned that she couldn’t do the work we needed her to accomplish, and that I would fire her. Firing her was the absolute last thing I would do, not the first thing. We jointly put together a work plan that allowed her to do the work we needed done at the times she could do it. She took naps, saw doctors, and was still able to do the required testing. Once she had the baby, our current plans went out the window. However, because she’d kept me aware of her condition, I was able to make other contingency plans quickly.

Unpredictable risks, like falling rocks, are a Fact of Life, not a Mystery of Life. If you observe, assess, and replan, you can avoid much of the consequential damage. In addition, as Mark told me in New Mexico, “Honey, maybe I’ll just drive a little slower, just in case there are some fallen rocks or rocks about to fall.”

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