Creating a New Habit of Looking for Opportunities

Conceptual sign of sucess in business and lifeOur brains seem to be wired to recognize negatives and threats almost without us thinking about it. Louis Collins wrote an excellent article recently about this and it got me thinking about how this behaviour can permeate projects and programmes to the extent that they become paralysed by the analysis of the potential risks involved in doing something. You only have to look at any large-scale public sector programme to see how this can occur. That’s not to say that the problem is confined to the public sector, it’s just that the reporting of such problems makes it clear for all to see.

These problems get exasperated when the final milestones are less than clear. Contrast this with a final deadline that is crystal clear and understood by all that it can’t be changed. One example is getting everything ready for the Olympic Games, the opening ceremony date is set some seven years in advance and cannot be changed for any reason. If that isn’t a compelling vision for a programme I have no idea what is. London got it right for 2012 and no doubt Rio will do in 2016, the focus is absolute.

Organisations can be accused of being risk averse and this may well be true but they have become like that usually because they have had such bad experiences in the past when trying to deliver projects and programmes they do all they can to get things right before embarking. Getting the planning absolutely right makes sense but an overly negative bias of those involved may mean that in their minds at least, the risks in getting started outweigh the benefits of successfully delivering. Does this sound crazy? Well, of course it is but it isn’t fantasy either, it can and does happen. I remember one organisation that required 70+ different approval signatures before a project was allowed to go through to main board – surely a case of too many cooks messing up the broth!

The reality is that for all projects and programmes there are risks even after all the risk identification activities have taken place up front. That’s why risks get reviewed regularly (or at least should be) in a realistic and honest manner. Far too often risk owners simply acknowledge the risk and say ‘all is OK’, until the risks materialize. Unfortunately this mindset reads across into the identification of opportunities. This is for one of two reasons in my experience. One, if project team members and stakeholders are actually prompted to identify potential opportunities that might benefit the project this is done at the back end of a risk meeting when everyone has been concentrating on the negatives and just want to get back to work (or home). Secondly, if opportunities are identified the processes that have to be gone through to change the planned project can be so difficult and time consuming it makes it not worth the effort to even try to change for the better. A sad state of affairs.

So, some tips for becoming more positive about project opportunities:

  • Start all risk meetings with a meaningful session of opportunity identification – also sets a more positive tone for the whole meeting.
  • Report a Top 5 Opportunities to Programme and Project Boards – they may not get taken up immediately but you will start to get senior managers aware of ways of delivering more effectively.
  • When a new risk is identified always ask for a corresponding opportunity that it might give rise to – providing the end goal is crystal clear this won’t divert the project and it just may provide an innovative alternative route to success.

We may well be hard-wired for negativity which means project teams can be great at identifying risks but this can be overcome with practice as a new habit of opportunity identification and adoption is developed. At the end of the day it’s the success of the project that matters most, and nothing else.


6 thoughts on “Creating a New Habit of Looking for Opportunities

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  4. Good suggestions here Paul for overcoming the negativity bias within project teams. Starting with opportunities makes a lot of sense and setting a positive tone is definitely a good thing to encourage. I also think that breaking big programmes down in to manageable deliveries and phases (e.g. using agile delivery methods) is important to get round the ‘paralysis’ and ”safety first’ mindset you allude to. Encouraging short sharp bursts of functionality, encouraging lots of participation, de-risking the delivery into small ‘less risky’ elements and basically encouraging people to embrace the mindset of ‘failing is ok but fail early’. This can seem scary for some big organisations to adopt, but perhaps picking one project area to try out this approach might help them to see the benefits they could be missing.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Louis. Breaking down complex programmes is most certainly the way forward but what I find is that at that senior governance level looking at the programme as a whole, paralysis and fear of making a change really exists. It’s as if recommending that there is now a more effective way forward is admitting failure for coming up with it in the first place. Personal agendas certainly take over unfortunately and that’s never any good for the individual projects and programmes themselves.

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