Lao Tzu would have been an inspiring project manager.

I’ve read his Tao Te Ching over and over again. One very interesting concept presented near the end of the work is that of never solving big problems, or more accurately, never needing to solve big problems.

The wise leader, wrote Lao Tzu, only addresses small concerns and simple problems. Why? Because great difficulties start out as small concerns; it’s only when they are not attended to properly that they develop into great difficulties.

The master of the way anticipates things that are difficult while they are easy, and does things that would become great while they are small.

I can’t think of a better foundation for successful risk management.

One year, as my annual development plan was due, I added two goals that reflected this concept:

  • I committed to having no more than 1 risk per project develop into a full-blown issue.
  • I also committed to having no discovered issues at all – meaning absolutely no issues would simply appear without first being anticipated as risks.

Were those unwise commitments to make? Yes and no.

It’s true that I was making myself directly accountable for something I didn’t have total control over. Am I clairvoyant enough to always know when a dev or engineer is ignoring a technical issue? Or if a vendor’s poor communication skills will lead to a schedule misunderstanding? But on the other hand I was committing to close-in, pain-in-the-butt risk and issue management. Wouldn’t that help me better see that someone was starting to get off track?

To execute on my goals, I set aside an hour each week purely for analysis of the projects. I’d leave the office with my laptop, get some coffee, and review all the details I could. I had only one question in mind: what was I not seeing? What was lurking, unexpected, right around the next milestone we were so confident we would meet?

To this day, I have no idea if the risks I discovered from those sessions saved the projects any time and energy. I don’t know if I solved big problems when they were still small, because, well, they were still small problems! I know I felt more in control of the variables of my projects, and I know I did a good job at risk and issue management.

And, at the end of the year, did I meet my risk management goals exactly as quantified in my yearly development plan? Nope.

But, did my review go really, really well anyway? Yup.