Don't panic! Why we have red flags in risk logs

It’s not often that project management methods hit the headlines. Projects, yes. Methods, not so much.

So I was mildly excited when I spotted a familiar red-amber-green-daubed spreadsheet in today’s news:

Secret documents reveal official concerns over 'seven-day NHS' plans
Confidential internal DH papers drawn up for Jeremy Hunt and other ministers in late July show that senior civil servants trying to deliver what was a totemic Conservative pledge in last year’s general election have uncovered 13 major “risks” to it.
The Guardian, 22 August 2016

Journalists might find this exciting. The rest of us might be somewhat less alarmed by the idea that a risk register for a significant public sector project actually has risks in it. 

Because, as I explained in a recent post, a risk log isn’t what we think will happen. It’s a list of things we’d rather not happen.

We list out all the things that might mess up our project so that we can take steps so they don't happen. Or at least minimise the consequences if they do.

In this case, the project is about expanding hours of operation and levels of staffing, for Britain’s health service. I’d imagine ‘not having enough staff’ is definitely something that would mess this up. So I'd want it on the risk log.

If the project pretty much relies on having enough staff, then this would be a high impact issue. And if I was hearing reports that we were already a bit short of staff in some areas, then I’d probably put this as a high probability issue too.

Conventionally, project managers use red ink to flag the biggest risks: the ones that are both high probability and high impact. You rarely have time and budget to reduce or remove all the risks in your project, so you usually focus on the biggest ones. 

None of this red ink at this early stage means the project is a disaster. It actually means the project team is doing its job of highlighting the most significant risks and dealing with them, thus making the project less likely to be a disaster.

So, while it’s unusual for me to concede that our government might be capable of actually governing, in this case, it looks like they are doing an okay job.

And if you’re responsible for a project, and you spot lots of red ink in the risk log, don’t panic. It’s just your team doing its job, too.