Being the bearer of a “bad” risk analysis while still keeping the project – and the client relationship – on track.

Major programmes are notorious for being significantly late and going well over budget. Recent news on HS2 has shown us that things are not getting any better in terms of effective risk management. Extensive risk assessments were done on HS2 which showed analysis that was challenging for senior management and the government and clearly was not sufficiently nor effectively acted upon. A sense of ownership, responsibility, pride or even blind optimism can often stop decision makers and invested parties taking the tough or unpopular choice on big programmes. Guiding clients to the right decision, at the right time, takes tenacity and a clear head to get the project and relationship back on track.

You have just risk assessed a major programme and the results don’t look good. Ensuring the news is received appropriately, by all parties, is critical to the next stage. Finding a route which results in a recovery plan and mitigation, instead of getting the consultants thrown out, depends on a few critical factors.

  • If the client has been long in the role: A sense of ownership and defensiveness can result in disbelief and mistrust of the results at best, and aggression towards the messenger at worse! It is natural that those parties who have been part of developing the plan feel a sense of ownership of it which might result in them defending it to the end.
  • If the client is new to the role: Clearly here it is more likely they will receive any bad news positively with a sense of being able to argue convincingly for changes to plans that have been inherited. Of course, there is an additional danger is that all plans are thrown out without due consideration that some might have merit.
  • If the project is a political hot-potato: Large projects have many senior stakeholders who have wanted to be associated with a headline project. When it is shown to be without merit, it is hard for those in the public eye to say they were “wrong”.

Making the news palatable

At De-RISK we have been in several situations over the years where, following our initial SDA, the chances of hitting the key milestones are shown to be very low and often 0%. This news can often be a shock to the parties involved so it’s vital to find a good way to deliver a difficult message which results in a favourable outcome for client and consultant, despite the initial unease at the results.

  • Give the bad news with a solution: “Your project has 0% chance of success” doesn’t engender much goodwill. “You have a 0% chance of success currently but if you manage these (say) 43 assumptions you have a 90% chance of success” has a far better chance of being heard and building longer-term relationships. It is also something the client is more likely to sell to their leadership even if they have been in the role for some time.
  • Accept “we are where we are…”: It’s a bit of a cliché but it is also a truism. The implication is that it is better to accept the current situation rather than dwell on the past and find people or reasons to blame for it. Instead, let’s look to the future and how we fix things together.
  • Expect and accept push-back and challenge: It is possible that the client could question where the data has come from. Even though it should have come from their team, identified and nominated by them! It’s not uncommon to be told you have spoken to the wrong people when the results are not palatable and accepting the challenge is usually the best course of action with re-interviews if necessary. With new numbers, the position may improve a little, although often not materially, and could even get worse.
  • Trust the process: De-RISK’s SDA process is a rigorous way of capturing the best knowledge from the clients’ organisation and other key stakeholders. After many years and much analysis, it has been proven many, many times. Experience shows that we can trust the process is working and should not be compromised – even when it’s tempting to do so. That’s when it is important to know the difference between compromise and flexibility and never to confuse them. Flexibility is making sure that the process is working appropriately within the specifics of the client’s programme. All programmes are similar but no two programmes are identical. Compromise is changing the process, often under client pressure, often to make shortcuts (eg “use these numbers rather the ones you have captured” and without the rationale of supporting assumptions). Stick to the process and trust the outcome.

“Costs, risks, timescales and benefits are being manipulated to suit individuals or organisational goals rather than the public interest. If the true costs and timescale of the project had been known beforehand, it might well have been stopped much earlier.”

Professor Stephen Glaister, Former Chairman of the Office of Rail and Road, adviser to DfT on HS2

Ultimately, consultants and advisers must operate with integrity. Hopefully with careful presentation and solutions, both the project and relationship can be saved. If, however, the client fails to see or accept the analysis, and if the right thing to do is to walk away, then do it. At De-RISK we know the value of the SDA process is in the rigour of the methodology and the clarity of the outcomes. “More than once, I have had to gracefully depart only for the client to realise that “we” were right and has called us back in some months later” says Keith Baxter, De-RISK MD.

Setting the parameters for the risk assessment methodology in advance can prepare the road for a bumpy ride, in terms of managing expectations. In the case of tough messages, particularly when the client has been an integral part of developing the plan, accept the results without compromise and think alongside the likely reception. With some planning and expectation, you can manage the message appropriately. Don’t forget that the value of your job, and the benefit of methodologies like SDA, is to scientifically calculate the likelihood of success, without emotion, so that appropriate actions can be put in place resulting in the success that everyone is looking for.

The HS2 project is a high profile one that bears out the fact that taking unpopular decisions early is tricky, no matter what the analysis is showing. An article by William Hague in The Times a few months ago recognised the failure to manage the complex challenges of HS2 and the impact on reputations and the public purse.

“The question for the future is how we in Britain get better at managing huge infrastructure projects. The IPA itself is evidently doing good work on training those responsible, through the Major Projects Leadership Academy. More expertise is indeed vital. But the Department for Transport recognised in a 2019 study that accountability for success or failure is critical and that ‘behaviour matters more than process’ — meaning that all involved have to discuss with each other, at an early stage, the problems they face.”