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Overcoming “What if?”

What to do when potential risks are getting in the way of forward progress

Many years ago on a planet far, far away, I worked on a project that was stuck. We had a clear mission and the desired end state could not have been clearer. Our problem was determining the current situation – and the associated risks. “What if” was killing us.

What the market looked like right now was a question we could answer with more or less clarity. The trouble began when a debate arose about the level of clarity. Was “more or less” enough? What if we weren’t right? What if this happened? What if that happened?

The discussion didn’t stop when we moved on to the planning stage. Our proposed solutions never got past the initial sketch because the constant chorus of “what if this” and “what if that” meant that none of them were satisfactory. Along with the other junior project team members, I kept my head low – like team members on problem projects everywhere. Eventually the project failed, but what was unusual here was that we learned from our mistakes.

The project owner would have been justified in throwing a tantrum and firing a project manager or two. Instead, he stepped in and showed us what we ought to have done in the first place.

We developed a “most likely” scenario – a process that went quickly, because it looked a lot like our original “more or less” scenario. It was based on the data we had available and our “best guess” estimates of how the future would unfold.

Next we developed a “worst case” scenario, which provided a home for our “what if” questions. The “worst case” scenario was indeed horrific and helped focus our attention on the weaknesses that we would have to be able to patch if things went wrong.

In a tour de force, he then led us through our scenarios. We all went step by step, first running through the scenarios by phase, covering action and our reaction. Then we went through the scenarios by specialty. Over and over, he uncovered connections and dependencies – or rather, he facilitated our discovery of connections and dependencies.

Many of these connections and dependencies were quite important, requiring specific tailored solutions developed in collaboration by different specialists on the team, which then require careful integration with the rest of the plan. Development of these solutions had to wait for the planning phase, but by using the scenarios, the project owner helped us see what the key requirements were for the specified solutions. This in turn made the detailed planning in the next phase much more focused, which made our workflow smoother – and faster.

By the time he was done, we were working on our own, sharpening our two scenarios together as a team, coordinating across functions, seniority and company lines. The scenarios not only provided a common basis for our future planning, but also a foundation for our reactions to the innumerable unexpected events that occurred as they inevitably do.

The multi-scenario situation development process had provided a common vision of the current situation and the potential threats that extended to the development of our solution and its delivery. It was a thing of beauty, and one that we all remembered.

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