The Benefits of Thinking About the Negatives of a Project
“Unintended consequences.” Sounds harmless, guilt-relieving, “not-our-fault” kind of language. On the surface it’s a simple-enough statement, declaring that there were outcomes to some actions taken that (usually) ran counter to the intent of the project, and generally they were not desired. In other words, “some bad things happened that we did not expect.”
But when one digs a little deeper, it is not unusual to discover that the undesired outcomes were in fact predictable, quantifiable, and knowable. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that they were also “avoidable.” There may even be a darker side, that is, that these consequences were indeed baked in to the plan and to some degree “intended.” Maybe not in the conscious, malicious sense, but in the context of being avoidable and not avoided, they became—inevitable owing to the absence of mitigation and counter-planning.
But how can this be? How is it that capital projects, in particular, which often receive a great deal of planning, resources, and attention, manage to get themselves into situations where there are circumstances and outcomes that are undesired, and sometimes even harmful to the primary objective of the project?
First of all, projects don’t run themselves. People do. And when we fail to take responsibility and fail to seek to account for all of the foreseeable outcomes and not just hoped-for ones, we greatly increase the risk set for the project, jeopardizing the value of the whole effort.
Also, many projects get launched with only the predetermined singular outcome in mind. Efforts tend to be focused on optimizing the positive aspects of that activity. Very often, little regard is paid to the ancillary activities of identifying, quantifying, and mitigating the risks and thinking about downstream and peripheral consequences. If your project management style, and indeed the orientation of your organization’s culture, is about accentuating the upside and dismissing those who identify risks, then your project (and your organization) runs the risk of being created in an artificial environment devoid of the realities of risk and potential negative outcomes.
Employ a strategy of science, and perhaps the art, of thinking broadly and being able to define a complete set of possible outcomes (both the positive and negative). This will expose the team to all the positive and negative outcomes they can conceive. Certainly not all potential outcomes can be imagined or predicted. However, most teams neglect the downside or any other outcomes beyond that which is the intended goal of the project. They run the risk of missing additional opportunities to positively leverage their work, as well as missing signals and likely consequences of their actions that with the right modeling, team members, and other factors could be avoided.
In planning our industrial automation and plant expansion projects on behalf of our clients, we strive to consider all of these factors, and more. Using simulation tools, the years of experience of our team members and partners, as well as other engineering and design tools, we are able to forecast where the benefits and risks of a given project are going to go. While there are certainly many schools of thought and practice around excellent project execution, many fail to take into account the planning for negative consequences, their anticipation and mitigation. While we’re by no means perfect, we strive on our clients’ behalf to think about and plan for all of these.