Examining the link between project management, change, and risk

by Sylvie Edwards

No organization is immune to change or risk. Especially during the last few years, it seems that change has picked up momentum. It seems at every turn, we face something new that is disruptive to our work, and is often unusual or unexpected. It is not really “business as usual” any longer. This led me to have a closer look at change with an eye on how it ties much closer to risk than I originally believed. My basic assumption was always that change creates risks, but it may not be that simple after all. Let’s look at the connection between project management, change, and risk.

I don’t know about you, but I have been through many organizational changes in my life. Just looking at the past years with the pandemic, we are experiencing change at a greater than normal rate and speed. Some of these change events were well planned and well-received, while others were, let’s just say, not that well planned or even anticipated in some cases. As a Project Manager, I am quite aware of the impact that we bring to an organization when it comes to change. I jokingly say that a PM walks in a room followed by a large banner that states “Your life is about to change.” 

Jokingly or not, it is quite true. We are the planner and forebearer of many change events in our organizations as we try to implement projects of all types. Over my years of doing project management, I have made a conscious effort to ensure that I introduce as part of our project delivery many components of change management as I could to try to understand, consider and integrate the stakeholders’ views of those changes.

It was not until about two years ago that I started looking more at it as a trilogy that includes: change, project management, and risk. This was when I discovered that these three were all part of an intricate puzzle that, if managed properly, would have a better chance of succeeding.

So, the way I look at it, a change event will require project management processes/practices to be used for delivery while ensuring that the change is beneficial and not detrimental to the organization; requiring us to pay close attention to the exposure to risk it brings about.

Nothing genius here about this discovery, it might have just taken me a few more seconds than other folks. If you had not made up this linkage, well, here’s where I explain a bit more on the close relationship that change shares with risk.

As with risk, there are dimensions to change that, if reviewed or monitored correctly, would allow us to get things done more efficiently and with better planning. If you are not familiar with risk dimensions, here are some of them that I will highlight as part of our talk.

Most people are quite familiar with probability and impact, which are the two basic dimensions of risk that are part of all risk analyses undertaken for projects. Some of the other dimensions which are not as discussed are velocity, familiarity, proximity, tolerance, capacity, manageability, affinity, and vulnerability. 

In performing risk management processes, these dimensions are dealt with analysis, mostly involving discussions with our stakeholders to understand them in the context of a particular project’s objectives and goals. The way we deal with them, quite often, is by modifying the qualitative analysis formula of P X I (probability multiplied by impact) to then include other such factors. For example, if you were to track velocity, you could put a factor of 1 – 10, which would be added to the P x I original formula, modifying then the result to account for this dimension. Sounds easy, but often it is quite biased or, again, as I’ve discussed in other posts, really based on stakeholders’ perspectives that can be flawed. When these are most valuable is if they are based on past data collected over the course of delivering other projects. That information then can make a difference in our interpretation of the risk.

Risk Dimensions

When I started looking at this, I positioned myself from a change perspective and substituted the same dimensions that one would use on risk while performing qualitative analysis. A word of caution here, not every organization applies other dimensions, so this might be a new concept to some of you out there. Let me define them for you.

  • Velocity: Picking up speed or momentum. As a change initiative is introduced, it can slowly pick up speed or take off uncontrollably. The key is to keep it in control.
  • Familiarity: Have we seen or experienced this type of change before? Familiarity brings a larger understanding and potentially better-targeted delivery.
  • Proximity: How “close” in time will the change impact us? 
  • Tolerance: Part of our attitude to change. How much can we deal with? How tolerant is the organization to change?
  • Capacity: How much change are we able to withstand? How many?
  • Manageability: The understanding or confidence that we can manage the change.
  • Affinity: Ability of stakeholders to relate to the change. Lack of affinity brings fear.
  • Vulnerability: If the change is not undertaken, will it leave us vulnerable to other factors. This often refers to market conditions such as competitors, inflation, etc.

As you can see, most of these can also be applied, monitored, and documented for our change efforts which would tie it right back into risk and project management, giving us potentially a better angle or view as to the work/effort necessary to introduce that change to our organization.

Again, if you are not convinced, give it a try or research it some more. This might just be another tool in your arsenal to help you through those pesky change events that won’t go away.


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