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Mitigating Risk and Leveraging Luck

Deservedly so, project management’s success has been defined in large measure by the project team’s procedural structures, sound executable actions, risk mitigation activities, and the like. An alternate view suggests there are forces at work at the margins that are prominent in delivering project success; namely, the combination of skill and luck.

A couple of basic assumptions are in order prior to discussing how skill and luck play out. Firstly, at the level most of us practice our profession, it is reasonable to assert the skills of the various stakeholders are technically and organizationally proficient. Secondly, we could view project complexity as an S-curve with simple/straight forward projects at the bottom left and highly complex initiatives ascending to the top right hand corner.

Skill + Luck

Assuming the project skill levels and complexity are sufficiently high, emphasis on process or procedural improvement may yield a negligible incremental benefit. What may be needed (as we move up the project complexity S-curve) is luck. An analogy to any (professional) championship game will see two highly proficient teams/players with the winner, more times than not, is defined by luck.

Luck, in the project management context, can be considered via two components:

  1. Diversity of Ideas
  2. Heuristics

What typically occurs is our project planning evolves from the perspective of the expert’s ‘position’; thereafter, project planning really becomes a puzzle-fitting scheduling matrix around the expert’s position. Invariably, this may run counter to reducing the collective error that often seems to surface when (complex) projects get off course. 

One of the paradoxical (yet common) behavioral characteristics of engaging with large groups is the greater the number of collectively consulted stakeholders, the more likely project team members will default to their own self-interest (i.e., a cost to the project) vs. the benefits (i.e., efficiency and exploring risk opportunities). In short, talking it through too much with too many people won’t necessarily help.

There are two ways of reducing the collective error and (ultimately) increasing luck. Firstly, the project manager has to harvest a greater diversity of ideas, particularly from the core project team members, to provide a richer solutions’ platform. This will increase the average divergence of the solutioning possibilities.

Secondly, the broader distribution or diversity of ideas that will eventually be discovered will actually decrease the collective error. The improved accuracy is the simple result from the project team’s taking into account the larger population of variations and collectively focusing in on the best approach or plan. 


At the project management margins, it is incumbent upon the project manager to regulate the amount of solutioning from stakeholders, increase the participation of the core project team as well as increasing the diversity of ideas. This is how the project team is likely to become lucky. As to where the project manager draws the lines as to where these variables conclude is a question of the project manager’s management skill. Stated differently, how the project manager and team go heuristically harnessing this potential is a chief heuristic differentiator between project success and mediocrity with regards to complex projects.

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