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People = Problems

Law: It only takes one cook to spoil the pot.

Q: Does your organization or customer have problem people, habits, or politics that would affect the project?

Let's start with the most basic reason why projects fail—people. I like to start a risk analysis at the source of the most problems, and people are usually where I find the source. People are amazing in their ability to screw things up. By stubbornness, hubris, lack of education, politics, assumptions, emotions, misinterpretations, or just laziness—you can blame failures on people in an instant. Even when people are trying to help, they can get you into trouble.

Like you, I'm a human being. We all make mistakes. We're all smart most of the time, but we do seem to do things every once in a while that make us wonder if there is something in the water. The key is to predict the common areas where we goof up or where we have bad habits that cause problems.

So what do you do? How can you stop the bulldozer of human stupidity? First, you need to know what is going to happen. Second, you need to think about how and when. Third, you need to think of a way to avoid it or a plan to recover if it happens.

People are just like parts in an airplane. If someone fails at a task, there should be a backup. If you can't have a backup, plan how you're going to crash or restart. If the problem is a lack of education, plan on educating or mentoring. If the problem is politics or attitudes, plan to use the same tactics as a politician or a diplomat—or even a salesman. In all cases, respect people. As I said, we're all stupid occasionally, but we hate it more when someone else points out our faults.

Low Risk

  • We have a long relationship with customers and coworkers.

  • Any risks of people and politics have been analyzed and accounted for.

  • There are plans to avoid problems and plans for probable problems.

  • Limits of the team and customers have been considered in the plan.

High Risk

  • No prior experience with customers or coworkers.

  • No plans to understand those involved.

  • No risk assessment, or an assessment that ignores people, habits, personalities, and politics.

Risk Management

  • Get to know your coworkers and customers.

  • Create risk assessments that include basic human nature.

  • Create a plan to avoid risks or to recover if they manifest themselves as terminal errors.

  • Remember that almost all failures can be associated with the thoughts or actions of a person. However, avoid blame and instead work on avoidance, education, and compromise to eliminate or reduce problems.

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