Listening ………. to what isn’t said

Richard Watson

Information alleviates risk by reducing uncertainty in decision making.

Communication is the effective distribution of information.

So one valuable way to identify risk within a project is to identify where communication is failing – or indeed where communication about an aspect of the project is actively avoided. This requires the cultivation of the skill ‘to listen … to listen to what is not said’.

On a major IT system the project management team were overwhelmed by the volume of risk information that was arising from the various teams within the project. It became practically impossible to identify which risks were important to respond to and which were not. It became totally impossible to identify any aspect of the project that was being actively avoided by the project team. Any aspect, that nobody takes a positive management interest in, is ultimately destined to achieve ‘star status’ at project meetings for all the wrong reasons!

The first line of approach was to initiate an information consolidation to reduce the amount of detail that was confusing the situation. The tool created was the ‘Cause-Cause Matrix’ which would ultimately reduce 2-3,000 detailed individual risks to 55 identified Risk Drivers or Originating Causes. These causes, and the potential risks that could arise from them could now be subjected to proper management consideration and appropriate commitment to action.

The second line of approach, and the one that yielded the quicker results, was to conduct a series of ‘free’ (unstructured) interviews with most of the senior project team. The reason for the selection of ‘free’ interviews was that the initial introduction seemed to present a project where nothing but best practice existed – very adequate time-scales, good project staffing, commitment to good processes (planning, change management, issues and risk management, etc), and finally client-funded prototyping by the two final bidders prior to best and final bid submission. Two factors began to emerge from the series of interviews:

As this latter aspect became clear, the interview with this person was deferred to the role of final interview – and it was to prove to be an interview with a difference.

The interview started in a similar vein as all the others – although as more specific information was desired a structured format had been adopted. The early answers continued to paint the picture of a ‘model practice’ project. The question which stopped this flow was:

“Considering the ‘model practice’ format of the project and the prestige of its significance, why is everybody so unhappy to be working on it?”

The result was initially surprise, followed by an outpouring of stories of sleepless nights over concerns that the project was heading for ultimate disaster. The next hour started to put a voice into the silence surrounding these unmentioned areas of stress, whose key aspects were:

Problem resolution was commenced by the undertaking of risk assessments of the options:

  1. Continue with the current situation
  2. Persuade the defaulting bidder to improve their performance, and delay ‘best and final bid’ so that they could complete their prototyping work;
  3. Drop the defaulting bidder and ride out the disapproval of the Admin/Finance Group.

The effect of the risk assessment was to rule out the second option, due to its potentially detrimental influence over the main project delivery. The risk situation was then mapped to the future to outline the effects of taking the risks associated with the first and the third options. This activity suggested that the first option would probably prove not to be a wise choice. This left the third option, which is the one that was pursued.

An interesting related aspect of the ‘Cause-Cause Matrix’ analysis was that the patterns of Risk Drivers observed suggested that a further 22 Drivers should be considered, even though no detailed risks had been previously identified for them. Included in these 22 newly identified Risk Drivers were those associated with the core problem of bidders being uncommitted to the prototyping phase. This supported the proposals made to concentrate on the management of one bidder, and illustrates the need to control detail so as to understand the underlying problems.

This decision to proceed with only a single bidder was endorsed by a wider business committee that included senior business management, procurement executives, user representatives, and Admin/Finance Group representatives. Their prompt decision was based on the risk information that had been developed and supported by the work described. Swift action was to the credit of both the business and the project management teams. However, it is unlikely that the need for the decision would have been so quickly identified if efforts had not been made by the consultant ‘to listen … to listen to what is not said’.

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