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The danger within: internally-generated risks in projects

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In their book, Waltzing with Bears, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister coined the phrase, “risk management is project management for adults”.  Twenty years on, it appears that their words have been taken seriously: risk management now occupies a prominent place in BOKs, and has also become a key element of project management practice.

On the other hand, if the evidence  is to be believed (as per the oft quoted Chaos Report, for example), IT projects continue to fail at an alarming rate. This is curious because one would have expected that a greater focus on risk management ought to have resulted in better outcomes.  So, is it possible at all that risk management (as it is currently preached and practiced in IT project management) cannot address certain risks…or, worse, that there are certain risks are simply not recognized as risks?

Some time ago, I came across a paper by Richard Barber that sheds some light on this very issue. This post elaborates on the nature and importance of such “hidden” risks by drawing on Barber’s work as well as my experiences and those of my colleagues with whom I have discussed the paper.

What are internally generated risks?

The standard approach to risk is based on the occurrence of events. Specifically, risk management is concerned with identifying potential adverse events and taking steps to  reduce either their probability of occurrence or their impact. However, as Barber points out, this is a limited view of risk because it overlooks adverse conditions that are built into the project environment. A good example of this is an organizational norm that centralizes decision making at the corporate or managerial level. Such a norm would discourage a project manager from taking appropriate action when confronted with an event that demands an on-the-spot decision.  Clearly, it is wrong-headed to attribute the risk to the event because the risk actually has its origins in the norm. In other words, it is an internally generated risk.

(Note: the notion of an internally generated risk is akin to the risk as a pathogen concept that I discussed in this post many years ago.)

Barber defines an internally generated risk as one that has its origin within the project organisation or its host, and arises from [preexisting] rules, policies, processes, structures, actions, decisions, behaviours or cultures. Some other examples of such risks include:

  • An overly bureaucratic PMO.
  • An organizational culture that discourages collaboration between teams.
  • An organizational structure that has multiple reporting lines – this is what I like to call a pseudo-matrix organization 🙂

These factors are similar to those that I described in my post on the systemic causes of project failure. Indeed, I am tempted to call these systemic risks because they are related to the entire system (project + organization). However, that term has already been appropriated by the financial risk community.

Since the term is relatively new, it is important to draw distinctions between internally generated and other types of risks. It is easy to do so because the latter (by definition) have their origins outside the hosting organization. A good example of the latter is the risk of a vendor not delivering a module on time or worse, going into receivership prior to delivering the code.

Finally, there are certain risks that are neither internally generated nor external. For example, using a new technology is inherently risky simply because it is new. Such a risk is inherent rather than internally generated or external.

Understanding the danger within

The author of the paper surveyed nine large projects with the intent of getting some insight into the nature of internally generated risks.  The questions he attempted to address are the following:

  1. How common are these risks?
  2. How significant are they?
  3. How well are they managed?
  4. What is the relationship between the ability of an organization to manage such risks and the organisation’s project management maturity level (i.e. the maturity of its project management processes)

Data was gathered through group workshops and one-on-one interviews in which the author asked a number of questions that were aimed at gaining insight into:

  1. The key difficulties that project managers encountered on the projects.
  2. What they perceived to be the main barriers to project success.

The aim of the one-on-one interviews was to allow for a more private setting in which sensitive issues (politics, dysfunctional PMOs and brain-dead rules / norms) could be freely discussed.

The data gathered was studied in detail, with the intent of identifying internally generated risks. The author describes the techniques he used to minimize subjectivity and to ensure that only significant risks were considered. I will omit these details here, and instead focus on his findings as they relate to the questions listed above.

Commonality of internally generated risks

Since organizational rules and norms are often flawed, one might expect that internally generated risks would be fairly common in projects. The author found that this was indeed the case with the projects he surveyed: in his words, the smallest number of non-trivial internally generated risks identified in any of the nine projects was 15, and the highest was 30!  Note: the identification of non-trivial risks was done by eliminating those risks that a wide range of stakeholders agreed as being unimportant.

Unfortunately, he does not explicitly list the most common internally-generated risks that he found. However, there are a few that he names later in the article. These are:

I suspect that experienced project managers would be able to name many more.

Significance of internally generated risks

Determining the significance of these risks is tricky because one has to figure out their probability of occurrence.  The impact is much easier to get a handle on, as one has a pretty good idea of the consequences of such risks should they eventuate. (Question: What happens if there is inadequate sponsorship? Answer: the project is highly likely to fail!).   The author attempted to get a qualitative handle on the probability of occurrence by asking relevant stakeholders to estimate the likelihood of occurrence. Based on the responses received, he found that a large fraction of the internally-generated risks are significant (high probability of occurrence and high impact).

Management of internally generated risks

To identify whether internally generated risks are well managed, the author asked relevant project teams to look at all the significant internal risks on their project and classify them as to whether or not they had been identified by the project team prior to the research. He found that in over half the cases, less than 50% of the risks had been identified. However, most of the risks that were identified were not managed!

The relationship between project management maturity and susceptibility to internally generated risk

Project management maturity refers to the level of adoption of  standard good practices within an organization. Conventional wisdom tells us that there should be an inverse correlation between maturity levels and susceptibility to internally generated risk –  the higher the maturity level, the lower the susceptibility.

The author assessed maturity levels by interviewing various stakeholders within the organization and also by comparing the processes used within the organization to well-known standards.  The results indicated a weak negative correlation – that is, organisations with a higher level of maturity tended to have a smaller number of internally generated risks. However, as the author admits, one cannot read much into this finding as the correlation was weak.


The study suggests that internally generated risks are common and significant on projects. However, the small sample size also suggests that more comprehensive surveys are needed.  Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence from colleagues who I spoke with suggests that the findings are reasonably robust. Moreover, it is also clear (both, from the study and my conversations) that these risks are not very well managed.  There is a good reason for this:  internally generated risks originate in human behavior and / or dysfunctional structures. These tend to be a difficult topic to address in an organizational setting because people are unlikely to tell those above them in the hierarchy that they (the higher ups) are the cause of a problem.  A classic example of such a risk is estimation by decree – where a project team is told to just get it done by a certain date. Although most project managers are aware of such risks, they are reluctant to name them for obvious reasons.


I suspect most project managers who work in corporate environments will have had to grapple with internally generated risks in one form or another.  Although traditional risk management does not recognize these risks as risks, seasoned project managers know  from experience that people,  politics or even processes can pose major problems to smooth working of projects.  However, even when recognised for what they are, these risks can be hard to tackle because they  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 within.

Written by K

December 10, 2014 at 7:23 pm

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