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Positive Risk: An Idea Whose Time Should Never Have Come!

Claude Emond’s Blog, SURVIVING THE PROJECT AGE, in which he shares his views and ideas about project management – and invites you to share yours

“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterize our age.” (Albert Einstein)

We live in the Project Age. Projects are everywhere, used as means to adapt to and succeed in our exciting, ever-changing uncertain world! To succeed, we need to communicate better; this is not what the concept of “positive risk” is doing for us!

The word ’risk‘ dates back to the late 1600s, derived from the Italian ’riscare’ meaning to run into danger. The Oxford English dictionary defines it as a situation involving exposure to danger, the possibility that something unpleasant will happen. The word ’opportunity‘ dates back to the late 1300s, derived from the Latin ’opportunitatem‘ meaning fitness, suitableness, favourable time. The Oxford defines ’opportunity‘ as a favourable time or set of circumstances for doing something, quite the contrary to the meaning of risk. So both history and dictionaries, which I propose, reflect common wisdom, are quite clear on the subject: a risk is associated with a probable negative impact, while an opportunity is something that we can make to evolve into a positive.

In a mysterious effort to rewrite history, we PMBOK-trained project managers now define a risk as an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project’s objective; and an opportunity as a risk that will have a positive impact on project objectives (source: PMBoK), a so-called positive risk. This is not a “necessary paradigm shift”, as promoted by some authors; this is just adding “unnecessary confusion” in boardrooms (where those who pay for projects reside!), a disservice to the cause of improved risk and opportunity management on projects.

We do not need a paradigm shift to manage both risks and opportunities. We simply need to rigorously apply SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis and management on our projects. Since upper management in most organizations is already familiar with the well-known SWOT technique, making it a preferred PM tool to discuss both project risks and project opportunities would really serve to create a better communication bridge with upper management. An attack on historical wisdom, using a new concept like positive risk will never create better communication nor promote good project management in the boardrooms.

We can’t survive the Project Age with moves like that! We can survive it by using common wisdom, the same dictionary and already proven tools like SWOT! So I say: let’s flush this positive risk nonsense, and include proper SWOT analysis and management in our PM toolbox!

And you, what do you say?

Part of this text is taken and adapted from the article “From Donald Rumsfeld to Little Gibus : Managing project risk and uncertainty revisited”, Le Bulletin (PMI Montreal Quarterly Newsletter), Vol. 14, No 3, Dec 2005 (

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