Learning to identify risks as an opportunity

by Sylvie Edwards

Time and time again, I mention the word “risk” in conversations, and what comes to everyone’s mind is, first and foremost, something negative. You can see it on people’s faces, followed by the usual questions around why I enjoy dreadful things so much. A much bigger experience from projects can come with an understanding that risks are more than one-sided, they, in fact, have a combination of positive and/or negative impacts on projects. Learning to identify opportunities can seem challenging for a lot of project managers and their teams, but it can become the most rewarding experience once one recognizes how to master the concept.

Let us first look at the definition of risk from PMI® perspective as provided in the PMBOK® Guide, which states that risks are “uncertain events or conditions that, if they occur, have a positive or negative effect on a project’s objectives.” Simple enough definition, you would think. So, by using this specific wording for this definition, PMI® demonstrates that it considers and views risks from both a positive and a negative perspective. Each is commonly known as a threat or opportunity in the project context.

It is one thing to define it as such; it is another to truly put it into practice. I have to fully disclose that I have worked for some time in risk management, and I can literally count on my ten fingers the number of times that I have been asked by a client during risk identification to include discussions about opportunities as well as threats. Most organizations are still clearly focused on the threats and how to be prepared or aware rather than looking at the full spectrum of risk, which very much includes being proactive by knowing what opportunities we can take advantage of so to get higher benefits from our projects.

Why is it so difficult to go there?

I think it is simply ingrained in our culture. Try it as a little test of your own. Say the word risk and see how people recoil and right away think of a threat or of a negative event. If I do this experiment in a classroom during the first class, I will maybe get one or two students to refer to opportunity as part of that equation, but most of the time, it is only because they’ve done their pre-reading work and have seen the definition from PMI®.

It did take me a while when I first started this work to not just focus on the negative events and to look for opportunities as I concentrated on project risks. Once I did discover and started being more comfortable with the concept, it made sense, and in fact, I started feeling as if the projects, when viewed in this light, provided better and greater value to the stakeholders. The switch in an organization will often happen when you start being a value generator as opposed to an expense generator. There is value in outlining opportunities that may not have been understood as such by our stakeholders and considering their appetite to pursue them as part of our delivery of the project.

Most people stop themselves short from doing this because they believe that the benefits, value, and objectives from the projects have been set already as part of business casework and that there’s nothing that they can do to add to this picture. After all, project managers are not there to put the picture together, they are there to deliver on it. All I can say here is that sometimes you don’t have the ability to make an opportunity happen, but you sure can escalate any discoveries to the right person in the organization that might be able to do so. This is where YOU bring value to an organization.

How do we fix this?

Well, there are no easy solutions to this problem than to simply start doing it. If you lead the way and start, even small at first, noting down possible opportunities stemming from project work being accomplished, then chances are people will start paying attention to what you do. Make sure that you go full circle and escalate what needs to be escalated.

You won’t be able to convince some people of the fact that risks can be positive. Trust me, opportunities do exist in all projects, not all huge but enough to make it so that you pay attention. I can predict that if you do start highlighting as well as documenting them well, you will start seeing a shift in how risks are viewed on your project. Extend that to all the projects that you do with the support of varied sets of stakeholders, and it will become part of your organization’s best practices.

Having a good risk management plan is a start. Having a good risk register or log and doing a thorough job at risk identification with both negative and positive risks will become part of normal work on projects. Awareness is the first step.


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