By Craig Covello, PMP:

The simplest path between any two points is a straight line.  The logic of geometry cannot be argued, however, geometry does not necessarily mirror the journey required to deliver a project on time and within budget.  Why?  Because the simplest path is not always the most reliable path.  There can be one or more obstacles.  Unless you have thought through the contingencies available, you may be missing the point (no pun intended).

A contingency plan, a.k.a. plan “B”, is a necessity.  In fact, there may be circumstances which really require more than one contingency plan in order to mitigate project risks.  You may need a plan “C” or perhaps even a plan “D” in order to achieve the milestones or deliverables you’ve defined.  There are generally two options available to you:

1.  Find one or more alternate routes.
2.  Return back to a known, secure state until the obstacle is removed.

Each option may have disadvantages.  Finding one or more alternate routes in order to reach your objective could result in compromising promised completion dates, promised functionality or some combination of both.  Returning back to a known, secure state can obviously compromise your time line, but may be appropriate in order to minimize the risk to existing systems or processes.

Making the decision between these two choices requires a candid assessment of the lesser of two evils.  The important point to remember is to never put the project or client in jeopardy based upon wishful thinking or the desire to simply move forward.  Doing “whatever it takes” to get the job done within a fixed time frame can exhaust resources while escalating uncertainty.  Leave yourself some options, which should be exercised as early as possible.  The sooner you identify the problem and take corrective action, the less likely you are to miss deliverable dates.  And when considering options, it is worth your time to apply a little math to the analysis.  Each option should be judged based upon probability of risk multiplied by the severity associated with that risk.  The options with the lowest scores will point you in the right direction.

The value of contingency planning was demonstrated during one of my first consulting jobs as a project manager almost 20 years ago.  A very large bank had acquired another very large bank and needed to merge 401(k) retirement systems.  The director in charge of the IT department invited me to his office on the first day.  He offered to provide whatever resources I needed in order to complete the mission, which would last approximately 12 months.  But that offer came with one stipulation.  I remember his exact words:

“Craig, just tell me which you need as early as possible and I will make sure that you get it.  Just don’t come to me four weeks before the completion date and tell me that you’re going to be late in delivering.” 

That initial heart to heart talk was my motivation for taking contingency planning seriously from the very beginning.  And that mindset continued right down to the final implementation script, which was critiqued in a meeting by approximately 40 people. During that review, the IT Director pointed to me and proclaimed to his staff:  ”This was a good hire!”

Why?

Because I never bet the farm.  There was always the plan “B” ready and waiting.

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