Asking Questions to Which You Don’t Know the Answer: Project Management Lessons From TEPCO, Part 4

Asking Questions to Which You Don’t Know the Answer: Project Management Lessons From TEPCO, Part 4

This article is part 4 of a four-part series on project management lessons from the tsunami that damaged the TEPCO Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex.

Tuesday, I noted three big project-management errors in their risk analysis. Wednesday, I described how they missed a big risk. Yesterday, I detailed single-point-of-failure issues. Today's final installment examines risk review.

Litigators are fond of saying, "Never ask a question to which you don't know the answer."1 Granted, they're talking about a specific circumstance, a witness on the stand, but the expression has hold of attorney imagination.

For one thing, you don't risk looking dumb if you don't ask questions. Also, some people - not only attorneys - think that control of a situation or a team means not only never showing ignorance but proactively demonstrating you know more than the other players.

Neither rationale is a good idea in dealing with risk.2

Not only does a project manager need to ask questions to which she doesn't know the answer... she needs to do so repeatedly, and often with the same questions. Eek!

Reviewing Risks

One of the big lessons from TEPCO - short for Tokyo Electric Power Company - is that the risk plan for tsunamis was never updated... but new facts emerged during the years after it was written, as I noted in Part 2 of this series. For example, clear evidence was discovered of historical tsunamis far larger than the supposedly maximum 19-foot wave and magnitude-8.6 quake they'd planned for.3 As we all now know, they got it wrong, which became clear when the water level rose 46 feet after the 9.0 megaquake.

Risk review is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

On any project, the project manager and team need to review the risk sheet regularly. I recommend weekly or fortnightly on most legal projects. It's a brief process, not a long meeting. Expedite it by circulating a current version of the risk sheet ahead of the meeting, highlighting whatever's changed since the previous meeting. Even better, sort the sheet so that the changes are at the top.

The risk review for most projects should not be a separate meeting; rather, it becomes a brief part of your overall team meeting (the shorter, the better... within reason). If you do this well, it will take five minutes, maybe less.

Ask the team some questions you don't know the answer to:

  1. Are the changes correct/sensible/agreeable?
  2. What new risks are we facing?
  3. Is there something else on the list that you think should be changed - probability of occurring, mitigation plan, etc.?

And then, listen. Listen to their answers, even if you don't agree with them.

As with any meeting, manage it both to encourage the less vocal folks to speak out and to rein in any discussions that get off track or go on for too long.

Tell the attendees also to email you (or see you in person) if they see or hear of something new before the next meeting. This gives the less vocal and/or lower-power team members the opportunity to raise risks without fear of being subtly ridiculed or undermined in the group meeting. Ideally, of course, you want to lead the team so that everyone is empowered to participate without recrimination in meetings, but the world as it is rarely meets our ideals.

Likewise, if there's argument over a risk - serious debate, not nitpicking - quickly defer it to a separate discussion rather than sidetrack everyone in the meeting (when the core purpose of the meeting is something other than looking at risk). Don't pooh-pooh it, don't minimize it, but saying "Let's talk about it later" isn't minimizing it, as long as you do get to it at some point before the next meeting.

This sounds like a lot of work.

First, project management is, of course, work. Second, risk review really isn't that much work once you get the hang of keeping it moving... and the payoff can be enormous. So can the cost of failure. Third, don't just review the risks but make sure your mitigation and contingency plans4 are appropriate. Knowing that you're subject to tsunamis that can overrun your seawall and that your backup generator system is a single point of failure isn't terribly valuable in itself; the value is in doing something to mitigate the problem before it occurs. (We know they didn't mitigate it, but it sounds like they had no contingency plan in place either.)

I hope the failure won't be anything as dramatic as what happened in Japan.  But on a far smaller scale, these failures can seriously damage your projects, hurt your clients, and affect your profitability or budget discipline.

Spend a little time on risk review, or spend a lot of time cleaning up the mess.


1I was raised during an era where folks were strict about not ending sentences with prepositions. It's not a grammatical necessity, as pretty much any modern style guide will note. Or as Churchill allegedly (and unprovably) said, it's nonsense "up with which I will not put." Still, some habits die hard.

2Trying to demonstrate you're the smartest person in the room is not a good leadership strategy, either.

3There, I ended a sentence with a preposition. Y'know, that doesn't feel so bad after all.

4In project manager parlance, mitigation is what you do to minimize the likelihood and/or the impact of a risk coming to pass. The contingency plan covers what you do should the risk actually occur.

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