Fear Itself

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We were gathered in the conference room and the project team was scared.  The project was six months late and the system barely ran.  They were afraid to even sneeze because it might generate another cryptic error message they had no idea how to fix.

“They want us to push this buggy mess to production!”, cried one team member.

“We will look terrible if they do that!”, exclaimed another.

“The vendor says all the bugs are fixed in the new release we just got”, I said.

“I doubt that!”, someone muttered.

“If what the vendor says is true, what are you worried about?”, I asked the team.

I had just taken over a troubled project and this was how the first meeting with the team started.  We had hired a vendor to customize a software product for us.  They were having trouble getting their product to work in our environment.  No one had ever done risk identification on the project and it showed.

By asking the team what they were worried about, I was starting the risk management process.  They responded verbally and we had some discussion.  I then gave them a form to document other things they were worried about and had them return it to me a few days later.  About a dozen risks were identified.  In the next meeting I gave everyone the consolidated list of risks and we discussed how likely they were, what the impact of them would be, and what we could do now to mitigate them.  For those few that did not have good enough mitigation, we came up with contingency plans.  I took the result and published it to the team and all the stakeholders.

The effect on the team was awesome.  Everyone calmed down and quit fretting about the project.  the team went from being paralyzed to being energetic.  We were finally able to move on with the project!

Simply going through a classic risk management exercise reduced the primary impact of the risks, which was fear.  Fear had paralyzed the team and sucked out all their energy.  Fear causes people to focus more on CYA than work.  It kills morale and reduces productivity to nothing.  Risk management reduces fear.  It is a people exercise as much as a mathematical one.

The risks themselves never materialized.  The vendor had fixed all the bugs and the system was suddenly stable.  The system was released to production a few months later and the stakeholders were happy.  The project team was proud of what they had deployed.

Have you ever seen risk management have this effect on people?  Please comment.

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3 Comments on “Fear Itself”

  • 20 December, 2010, 0:28

    I’ve seen this time and time again. Not only with risks, but also with implementation plans. The most important part of this process is documenting the issues. Just putting something down on paper, and then putting it into a report for all to review in a meeting can often take the emotion out of the discussion, as now you’re all focused on the same thing – and people aren’t going off on tangents in their own minds.
    Then, walking people through the worst case scenarios, and developing a clear plan of action, takes all the mystery out of the issue.

    Excellent article.

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