What Could Go Wrong? How to Manage Risk for Successful Change Initiatives

Every change initiative comes with inherent risk. But too often we shy away from exploring the potential pitfalls at the outset. If we are to succeed, however, we should embrace risk. After all, change initiatives are born from a risk analysis—a conclusion that the risk of doing nothing is higher than the risk of embarking on an experimental initiative.

When leading a change initiative, you should focus on acknowledging, anticipating, and managing risk—instead of avoiding it at all costs.

    The good news is that risk management is not rocket science. Through my extensive work with change initiatives, I’ve identified six key steps to effective risk management. By following these steps on your initiative, I hope you’ll discover how embracing risk can lead to success.

    Six Steps to Effective Risk Management

    1. At the Start, Identify the Risks You Face.

    Make a list. Formalize this process by holding a premortem. Just as a postmortem enables the team to assess what went right or wrong after the fact, a premortem provides a space for thinking in advance about what could go wrong during the project. As you and your team brainstorm, you should cast a wide net. Consider factors intrinsic to the project and also those outside the team’s control. For example, consider the risk of potential resistance from stakeholders, which nearly always arises in change initiatives.

    2. Quantify the Risks.

    Not all risks are created equal. The risk of a slight delay in funding might be very different from the risk of a major partner pulling out of a joint venture. By quantifying the risk, you decrease the influence emotions can play and allow different risks to be compared. One method is to assess the risk along two dimensions: the probability of the risk occurring, and the impact the risk would have if it actually occurred. Using a scale from one to five, you can evaluate each of these dimensions for the risks you’ve identified. Then, you can multiply the two numbers to produce a risk factor from 1 to 25.

    3. Establish a Risk Threshold.

    Consider your initiative’s tolerance for risk and then establish a threshold. If you are not sure where to start, set your threshold at the center of your risk scale. For example, on a scale of 1 to 25, start with 12 as your threshold. Compare your quantified risks to the threshold and then spend some time thinking about the ones that exceed the threshold and then adjust as needed.

    4. Create Contingency Plans.

    For each risk, engage in a thought experiment. First, think about what steps you can take, if any, to eliminate or mitigate the risk. It may be that a small adjustment to your plan will reduce the probability to zero. Second, think about what you plan to do if that possibility becomes reality—in other words, if the risk becomes an issue. Will the team be able to work around it easily? Or will the magnitude of that risk require rethinking your entire initiative? The more you plan for risks ahead of time, the better prepared you will be—and the more successful you will be in keeping your initiative on track

      5. Monitor Risks over Time.

      Along with the Gantt charts, status reports, dashboards, and other tools that help you assess your progress, you can also create a Risk Register (also called a Risk Log) that sets out all the risks, their risk factors, and current status. As you reach a particular milestone, perhaps one risk can be eliminated from consideration because it is no longer possible. Perhaps another risk has created an issue that needs to be dealt with. Or perhaps a new risk has been identified and should be evaluated. Your goal is to keep a close eye on risk throughout the project.

      6. Consider Assigning a Risk Watcher.

      You may want to identify a particular team member who has the responsibility to monitor risks and raise flags. Teams working on change initiatives are by definition optimistic. While everyone else on the team might be saying, “This will go fine,” someone needs to be able to say, “Clouds are rolling in” or “We’ve said that for the last six meetings and it hasn’t happened.”

      To manage risk successfully, you need to be proactive in anticipating it. And to lead a change initiative successfully, you need to be an honest communicator. Talk with your team and with upper management about risks to the project and issues that crop up along the way. As a manager, you can improve your ability to manage risk by fostering a culture that values positive thinking while encouraging open discussions about problems.

      Embracing change means embracing risk. With the right pragmatic approach, you can become a more effective change agent by understanding risk as a natural part of change—and by anticipating and managing it.

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