By Bill Flury

Problems Don’t Add Up: They Multiply
If you remember Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong, it will” then you realize why you should do risk analysis for your projects.  You also need to remember the crucial addition to Murphy’s Law: “… and it will go wrong at the worst time.”  The worst time is when you already have other problems occurring. Let’s count how many problems we come up with in each scenario.

The Titanic
Everyone knows the tragic result of the Titanic’s collision with the iceberg. We also know that the tragedy happened because several problems occurred at the same time, each one magnifying others; the lookouts did not have binoculars (left behind when they sailed), the radio operators did not get the messages about the icebergs, many of the “watertight” compartments failed and, although there were lifeboats, there were too few and no one knew how to deploy them effectively. Studies have identified 13 simultaneous problems, so take any one out of the equation and the results would likely have been less tragic.

Problem Score – 13+
Titanic – 0

Your Titanic Situations
As a good project manager, you, of course, have a risk plan for your project and possess all the potential problems you have foreseen individually listed and arranged by probability and impact. However, have you ever considered situations where several of those problems might occur at the same time? Think about the examples below:

Example #1 – Snowmageddon
Look at what some folks in New England faced in the winter of 2015. It snowed every few days for over a month. The Boston area had over eight feet of snow and freezing temperatures throughout February. Try to imagine running your business in this situation!

If you worked in New England, you would know there is a risk that, with a heavy snowfall, your staff members might not be able to get to the office (#1) so you set up procedures for staying linked by telecommuting. However, what if the power to your building also goes out for several days?  No one can link to your office network (#2) and to top it off, two key employees were hospitalized with storm-related problems; one has a heart attack shoveling snow (#3) and the other falls while clearing snow from the roof of his home and is badly injured (#4).

Problem Score – 4
Snow – 0

Welcome to today’s world of simultaneous multiple problems.

Example # 2 – Operations Problems
Say you work in a company that uses highly specialized equipment to produce unusual products like fine art graphics materials. Your equipment uses volatile inks and specialized paper and your company is a safety-minded company and you know that there is a constant risk of fire so you have regular fire drills. Those are always scheduled for nice days – but what if it was real fire (#1) on a day with horrible weather outside and your staff is not allowed back in the building for an extended period of time (#2). You have two problems at the same time – a fire and your employees are exposed to bad weather. Each one is bad by itself. Together, they are much worse.

However, let’s add one more problem. Let’s say the fire was in your graphics section and it destroyed your specialized printers (#3). Your risk plan covers that so you know the printers can be replaced quickly by a local supplier. So, you call her and tell her you need the replacements now! However, she’s out of stock (#4). There are some in transit but they are on a ship in Long Beach that is not being unloaded because of a dockworkers’ strike (# 5).

Now let’s really pile it on. There are no local systems that can work with your backup graphics data (#6) to continue your project so you will have to outsource it to the only other firm which specializes in that which is in France.

Problem Score – 6
Business – 0

Don’t think this is possible? Think about something that has gone wrong recently and see how many different problems were involved in making it worse.

Example # 3 – Multiple Schedule Problems
Fred Brooks said in The Mythical Man Month, “Projects get late one day at a time.” Here is a personal experience of how it happened to me. 

My refrigerator quit working on Tuesday. Being prepared for that problem (#1), I called the local appliance store and the dealer said that he would get one out to me tomorrow. A replacement was delivered on Wednesday afternoon. I was not prepared for the second problem.  On Thursday afternoon, the replacement refrigerator was still warm inside (#2).  I called the dealer and he said he would send another replacement as soon as he could but he had no more in the store (#3) and would have to get it from his wholesaler. He called the wholesaler who said that he would normally ship it on Monday but Monday was a national holiday (#4) so it would not get to the dealer until Tuesday afternoon and to me on Wednesday – eight days after my original refrigerator broke down.

Problem Score – 4
Consumer – 0

Fortunately, the weather was good, the roads were clear, and the delivery guys showed up for work, the truck didn’t break down and the refrigerator was delivered and it worked. Otherwise the problem score could have been higher. Multiple problems turned what should have been a one-day replacement into a week-and-a-day process. What if this wasn’t just a homeowner’s issue?  What if I ran a restaurant and I didn’t have a refrigerator for eight days?  My business might never have recovered from this disaster.

Planning for Multiple Risks
Could multiple problems happen to you and your business?  Definitely! The next time you sit down to discuss your risk list, take a moment to think about the possible combinations and how those might multiply the potential impact. Plan your projects and your business so that you are prepared, not just for a single problem, but for a number of separate problems that could magnify the loss – and even sink your ship.

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