Have you ever had to “run something past legal” in your career? Whenever I have had to do that, I have often suspected that the legal team was somehow against our organization making progress.
Legal is notorious for saying, “You can’t do that because…”And the reasons they give often seem far-fetched and ridiculous. But despite legal’s perceived desire to hold us back, there is rhyme and reason behind the legal department’s function.
Legal is there to protect us from liability or possible litigation. They know the laws and how the things we may want to do could leave our organization subject to a lawsuit. They may seem more risk averse than we would like them to be at times. But we pay them for their expertise in the law and to reduce our risk in that regard.
Being a lawyer for risk
Just as a lawyer helps us identify areas for risk in the business world, project managers need to do the same for risk in the project world. No matter how positive of an outlook you have on life, you need to sometimes take a negative view when it comes to risk mitigation.
Like a lawyer, we need to think of all the bad things that could potentially happen to offset the project. Any decision or change to the plan can have several positive or negative impacts to a project. Risk management is about considering any potential negative impacts and developing a mitigation plan for it. You need to look at it from two different perspectives: the likely hood that the project will be affected negatively, and the negative impact it could have.
Determining the likelihood of a risk occurring is almost always a judgment call. You may take into account how often the situation has occurred in the past. You may take other considerations into account, but determining a likelihood percentage is big part of the assessment.
Independent of how likely the risk is to occur, it is important to determine the impact it would have on the project if it did occur.
It is a balancing act between these two perspectives. Let’s use an example to which we can all probably relate. In mid-2019, most people would have put the likelihood of a global pandemic very low; maybe at less than one percent.
Regardless of how unlikely it was to happen, we all know that if (when) it did happen, the impact was momentous. The COVID-19 pandemic affected every business and every individual significantly. You may identify many risks that, while they have low probability of happening, you need to have some form of contingency if it does.
On the other side of the coin, there may be many risks with a high likelihood, but a low impact on the project. If there is a risk that ordering discounted servers will cause them to be a week late, that may have low impact and can be planned around. It is still a good exercise to have a contingency plan for that one-week delay.
One of the first managers I had in my career told me about his experience in the Air Force. He said that while flying, he had to be deep in a zone of being prepared for anything to happen. He had to be not only aware of what was happening at the time, but of what could potentially happen. He had to be ready to react to situations at a moment’s notice.
This was risk management in flying a fighter plane. Managing project risk is perhaps not as dangerous or critical as that. But it is important to have backup mitigation plans for many possibilities.
Thinking like a lawyer puts you in that zone of considering all possibilities and any negative impact those situations may have on your project. Much of your planning will never have to be executed. There were probably people who had contingency plans for a pandemic five or six years ago. But the folks who planned for it in late 2019 are certainly glad they considered that possibility.
When has thinking like a lawyer helped your risk management planning?
If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.
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