Elephants in the room: seven reasons why project risks are ignored
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:
- Those involved in the project are best placed to “see the elephant”
- 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.