Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Elephants in the room: seven reasons why project risks are ignored

with 17 comments

Project managers know from experience that projects can go wrong because of events that weren’t foreseen. Some of these may be unforeseeable– that is, they could not have been anticipated given what was known prior to their occurrence. On the other hand  it is surprisingly common  that known risks are ignored.  The metaphor of the elephant in the room is appropriate here because these risks are quite obvious to outsiders, but apparently not to those involved in the project. This is a strange state of affairs because:

  1. Those involved in the project are best placed to “see the elephant”
  2. They are directly affected  when the elephant goes on rampage  –  i.e. the risk eventuates.

This post discusses reasons why these metaphorical pachyderms are ignored by those who need most to recognize their existence .

Let’s get right into it then – seven reasons why risks are ignored on projects:

1. Let sleeping elephants lie: This is a situation in which stakeholders are aware of the risk, but don’t do anything about it in the hope that it will not eventuate. Consequently, they have no idea how to handle it if it does. Unfortunately, as Murphy assures us, sleeping elephants will wake at the most inconvenient moment.

2. It’s not my elephant: This is a situation where no one is willing to take responsibility for managing the risk. This game of “pass the elephant” is resolved by handing charge of the elephant to a reluctant mahout.

3. Deny the elephant’s existence: This often manifests itself as a case of collective (and wilful) blindness to obvious risks.   No one acknowledges the risk, perhaps out of fear of that they will be handed responsibility for it (see point 2 above).

4. The elephant has powerful friends: This is a pathological situation where some stakeholders (often those with clout) actually increase the likelihood of a risk through bad decisions. A common example of this is the imposition of arbitrary deadlines, based on fantasy rather than fact.

5. The elephant might get up and walk away: This is wishful thinking, where the team assumes that the risk will magically disappear. This is the “hope and pray” method of risk management, quite common in some circles.

6. The elephant’s not an elephant: This is a situation where a risk is mistaken for an opportunity. Yes, this does happen. An example is when a new technology is used on a project: some team members may see it as an opportunity, but in reality it may pose a risk.

7. The elephant’s dead: This is exemplified by the response, “that is no longer a problem,” when asked about the status of a risk.  The danger in these situations is that the elephant may only be fast asleep, not dead.

Risks that are ignored are the metaphorical pachyderms in the room.  Ignoring them is easy  because it involves no effort whatsoever. However, it is a strategy that is fraught with danger because once these risks eventuate, they can – like those apparently invisible elephants – run amok and wreak havoc on projects.

Written by K

January 20, 2011 at 10:52 pm

17 Responses

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  1. High levels of personal ability and organisation are needed to manage large projects. It lies in the behaviour of its players that successful project organisations acquire success and are distinguished. It surely is the way that complex and uncertain project execution is sustained. Perhaps the all-too-common insistence on prescribed processes in a project management regime, is a primary reason for the blindnesses identified by Mr Awati. It is human and organisational behaviour – the way that people and groups think, feel and act – that accounts for the difference between excellent and poor or OK results. It is for this reason that few regimes are able to acquire their freedom to perform as collaborative communities.


    Martin Price

    January 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm

  2. Martin,

    Many thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I agree wholeheartedly: obsession with process often blinds organisations to the fact that behaviour – both individual and organisational- can be the difference between project success and failure.

    In particular (as far as risk is concerned) the reluctance to name the “elephant in the room” is often attributable to one of the following organisational dysfunctions: a) the high cost of speaking up or b) groupthink.





    January 24, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    • Kailash

      The solution includes what you list: but I think attribution for the ‘Elephant Syndrome’ is a more pervasive feature of a working community and its regime (the culture, values and intentionality of leaders who govern the behaviour of the project players).
      I now realise it to be possible to bannish the ‘Elephants Syndrome’ from a project regime. I believe that I have produced the elephant tamer in the form of a book that I am now writing: ‘Lessons from Pacing Projects – thriving in the Value Zone’.


      Martin Price

      January 24, 2011 at 11:38 pm

  3. Martin,

    You’re right, the high cost of speaking up and groupthink often point to a deeper organisational malaise, one that can often be traced back to leaders.

    I look forward to reading your book.





    January 25, 2011 at 7:27 am

  4. Cue maniacal laughter now… Kailash – This is the most blog like post I have seen you do! Usually when I am reading here I feel like I am reading a journal 🙂

    Martin – Your book idea sounds really interesting. Looking forward to hearing more.

    The topic of culture is a relevant and interesting one isn’t it. I have a heuristic I use – try to understand the cultural dissonance I am about to face and price it into the work.


    Craig Brown

    January 25, 2011 at 10:34 pm

  5. Thanks Craig,

    That’s consistent – most of the time I’m writing for Eight to Late, I feel like I’m writing a journal paper 🙂

    I really like your idea of pricing anticipated cultural dissonance into the quote – substitute time for price and you have a formula that all PMs can use.





    January 25, 2011 at 10:41 pm

  6. Yes, ‘cultural dissonance’ – another elephant! Schon talks of the ‘swampy lowlands’ where situations for the professional are confusing ‘messes’ – as distinct from the high, hard ground where well founded theory can be more confidently deployed. This contrast is familiar to the PM and the consultant.
    Managing projects is particuarly dependent on surviving the swampy lowlands -its where projects succeed and fail. As Martin Barnes, President of APM says, ‘we should only, as professionals, fail for new reasons’. Too often we fail for very familiar and repeated reasons. We have the tiger by the tail and too often it turns to bite us .




    Martin Price

    January 25, 2011 at 10:58 pm

  7. Kailash, this is an interesting look at risk analysis and project management, and I thank you for posting this. Few people seem to realize how important things like this can be and neglect it, causing devastating results. I have seen these examples first hand and believe that the more people understand and actually do something when confronted with a problem, the better their projects will turn out. Especially when dealing with large projects.



    January 31, 2011 at 8:10 pm

  8. […] Using the metaphor of the elephant, Kailash Awati explains the reasons why project managers don’t want to recognize known risks. […]


  9. Great article…reminds me of the blog I wrote called ‘There are no risks in this project.’ This came about when someone was told these very words by a senior manager.

    Do you mind if I replicate this for different groups? Thanks Ron


    Ron Rosenhead

    June 2, 2011 at 5:53 pm

  10. Thanks Ron,

    It is amazing how perceptions of risk can vary wildly between stakeholder groups. To me this suggests that the view of risk as a social construct has some validity – I have discussed this in some detail in an earlier post.

    Please feel free to replicate this post with attribution and (if possible) a link back to my blog.

    Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment.





    June 2, 2011 at 8:45 pm

  11. […] 4. Ignoring known risks: It is surprising how often known risks are ignored.  The reasons for this have to do with politics and mismanagement. I won’t dwell on this as I have dealt with it at length in an earlier post. […]


  12. Kailash
    Thank you – it was nice to read a lighter piece from you, although I really value your in depth pieces; they make me think rather a lot more than most PM bloggers and certainly some of your earlier pieces on risk informed my thinking in my forthcoming book, Risk Happens! – I acknowledge you by name, by the way.
    What I wanted to say about this is that there is an eighth reason why risks are ignored: “we can’t see it behind the bigger elephant we have replaced it with”.
    I am referring to a adjunct to Group Think: Risky Shift, in which a group moves to a higher and higher risk position, as it constantly endorses the current status – but fails to notice that the risk profile exceeds that which any of the members would ever have endorsed alone.
    Your readers might enjoy a blog I wrote about this (http://mikeclayton.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/groupthink-abilene-and-risky-shift/) and a follow up that shows that our neurology seems wired to create Risky Shift, so we must work hard to create processes that challenge it (http://mikeclayton.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/neuroscience-of-risky-shift/).


    Mike Clayton

    June 4, 2011 at 12:20 am

  13. Mike,

    Thanks! I’m glad that you found some of my articles useful.I enjoyed your post on the neuroscience of groupthink, and look forward to reading your book.





    June 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm

  14. Great article. In my organisation, I can personally vouch for Number 4.

    (By the way “the high cost of speaking up” sounds like a great idea for a post on here, if it hasn’t been posted already).


    Dries Smit

    July 19, 2011 at 8:28 pm

  15. Reblogged this on yieldingtothewind.



    August 20, 2015 at 10:36 am

  16. […]  lie outside a project manager’s sphere of influence.  They therefore tend to become those proverbial pachyderms in the room – known to all but never discussed, let alone documented….and therein lies the danger […]


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