Project Management and the Risk and Learning Cycle

During the life of a project there is a Risk and Learning Cycle that takes place that is critical to the success of the effort and an important foundation for projects that follow. This blog describes my thoughts on that cycle, and takes a bit of a different approach than you might expect. I believe that we humans are natural risk managers and that we need risk to succeed, learn and grow.

I’ve recently concluded that human brains are “hard-wired” to manage risk. I don’t mean to imply that we enjoy risk, or that we always handle it with expertise and ease. I am convinced though, that hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, exposed to a risk filled environment, has shaped our neurological equipment to instinctively manage risk. In fact, I believe that today, we actually need risk in our work lives to help us: focus our attention; challenge our creativity; bring us together; explore our limits; and help us learn. Further, I believe that through better thinking and thoughtful discussion we can achieve deeper appreciation for, and better ways to apply our inherent risk management capabilities.

As I’ve discussed in earlier blogs, knowledge and risk are two sides of the same coin. Risk is an absence of, or uncertainty in, our knowledge. One of the primary traits of human beings is our instinctive pursuit of knowledge. That pursuit is motivated by something that we sense as a gap in our knowledge, which we perceive as a threat that requires action. In the context of project management, lack of, or uncertainty in our knowledge, is defined as risk.

Having the right knowledge, at the right time in a project, is necessary for both survival and success. If you accept this, and you concur that the pursuit of knowledge is driven by risk, then it must also be true that risk is a necessity for project success.

Does this make sense? Don’t we try to avoid or eliminate risk on every project? My answer is yes, it makes sense. No matter how successful we are in identifying and handling risks for a given project, we know that there are still many risks out there in the form of “unknowable’s” and uncertainties. So every risk management plan, must include a knowledge management plan to develop, route and apply new learning. Further, there is always another project in the pipeline and both knowledge and risks from one project can inform and enhance the performance of the next.

Ironically, there are two products of the project learning process: knowledge; and newly discovered knowledge gaps. The new knowledge gaps may create a new risk, which in turn drives more learning. And so the Risk and Learning Cycle continues.

About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as a Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise are in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning in a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. I'm an Aerospace Industry Consultant. I serve my community as a Rotarian. My hobby is playing as a jazz keyboard.
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5 Responses to Project Management and the Risk and Learning Cycle

  1. Thanks Don,
    Knowledge and Risk as different sides of the same coin is a really helpful way of connecting KM to performance to convince even the most hardened skeptics.

    This leads us to a project risk plan which is underpinned by knowledge gaps and focus areas, rather than the idea an additional “project knowledge plan”. I always found that idea counter-intuitive for organizations seeking to embed KM, because it creates an extra step (the knowledge equivalent of over-zealous ‘elf-and-safety compliance perhaps?), so could prevent an organization from moving to a state of unconscious competence?

  2. ‘Stage Zero’, is it the most imortant stage of “the life of a project” ? What are the surrounding parameters?

  3. Hi Don, I like your work and the PM-KM-RM connections. I have just completed a Masters PM and have commenced a PHD on PM Lessons Learned. I would like to connect with you and further explore your post. Cheers, Stephen

  4. Tony Adams says:

    Hi Don,

    I enjoyed your post and it gave me Penty to think about – I hadn’t thought of the KM component although it aligns with Stephen Duffield’s interesting work around Lessons Learned.

    I’m interested in risk/knowledge management from a slightly different approach – we often see risk management as ‘preventing bad things from derailing our project’…I’d like to think about taking a proactive approach to see what hurdles or impediments can be identified and removed that prevent us from realizing target Business Benefits.

    It’s a subtle difference but it interests me very much. As well as looking for risks that might cause failure, we can benefit from looking for risks that hold us back from realizing our target landscape and benefits outcome. If we can manage them at the outset, if we can harness our people and knowledge…then we have a better likelihood of changing the organsational environment to align with our target outcome.

    Thanks, Tony

  5. Hi Tony, I plan on doing more work in the RM and KM space so please stay in contact if your interested. …like the post Don.

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