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Author: Robert Castel

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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In Defense of Project Instability

Doubtlessly, many of us have experienced project(s) that seem to have been the direct opposite of the prescribed organizational and/or well-heeded PMBoK methodology we have been duly trained in.  When describing the project environment of a  relatively recent experience (aka project assignment) I was involved in, it would be more accurate to suggest the project footings were as steady as typing on a tablet while riding a unicycle.  In many respects, designing/architecting (a sort of planning) gave way immediately to execution, and the operational steady state was an interesting afterthought.  The focus of the article  (setting aside the issues of management decision making, project happenstance, and project processes) is to underscore the great lesson learned of how brilliantly people can excel and collaborate in an extraordinary fashion in the absence of commonly accepted documentation and governance practices.  The rarity of this project team interaction points out, for all its process faults, project instability can lead to successful projects.
Adaptability is one of the Emotional Intelligence (EI) competencies that Cherniss and Goldman (2001) define as being “open to new information and can let go of old assumptions and to adapt how they operate. Emotional resilience allows an individual to remain comfortable with the anxiety that often accompaniesuncertainty and to think ‘‘out of the box,” displaying on-the-job creativity and applying new ideas to achieve results” .   In this project’s circumstance, Adaptability wasn’t as much a corporate decree or desire as it was an implicit understanding we could fulfill our individualistic intrinsic drives of meaningful work, being empowered to make meaningful  decisions, and individually contributing  to form the project team’s collaborative identity. 

The de-emphasizing of the familiar project process moorings seemed to be softened by accelerating levels of trustworthiness within the project team’s every day interaction.   As it turned out, the many very high project risks may have been surmounted by the project management’s innovation of the project’s team Adaptability.  Business thinker and strategist Hamel (2012) points out “[t]o thrive in turbulent times, organizations must become a bit more disorganized and unmanaged – less structured, less hierarchical, and less routinized.”. 

Once the obvious became apparent, creativity at macro and micro levels, seemed to flow from everyone’s direction thereafter.  Although each of the project team members had their subject matter skills, their formal roles were often brushed away as their keen willingness for their personal and the project team’s success became an over-arching tangible outcome.  For example, a system architect would labour for hours, late at night on a client’s crashed laptop, or skilled desktop technicians found themselves newly immersed in a learning curve of an Audio/Visual communication system.  In short, other members of the project team filled in the critical delivery gaps without hesitation.

Our project governance was matrix-based with no noticeable hierarchical construct.  Project information flow was totally transparent, detailed as necessary, and critical communications were largely informal.  That is not to suggest formal communications were absent or neglected; far from it.  It is only to suggest, decision points were distributed quickly and trusted as fact within the project team’s social cohesiveness.

Hamel provides “A Hierarchy of Human Capabilities at Work” that may give us the understanding of what may have taken place during the project’s seemingly unstructured success.  Hamel (2012), on a twist of Maslow’s hierarchy, identifies six levels that may have a profound impact on individuals and team performance:

  • Level 1: Obedience (required for large-scale organization growth)
  • Level 2: Diligence (the individual’s work is the individual taking personal responsibility for their efforts)
  • Level 3: Expertise (the individual and collective skills and functional competences standards)
  • Level 4: Initiative (individual and/or collective drive is initiated to engage in an opportunity)
  • Level 5: Creativity (occurs when unconventional insights and pattern are brought into play challenging orthodox workflows)
  • Level 6: Passion (where the distinction between vocation and avocation become inseparable)

Hamel (2012) makes the astute observation that “obedience, diligence, and competence are becoming global commodities.  You can buy these human capabilities just about anywhere in the world, and in places like India and China, they can be bought for next to nothing.”    The real turning point in a project team’s acceleration occurs when the three higher orders of human capabilities are ignited.  The paradox of engaging the higher levels of human capabilities in a project environment is the diminished emphasis on functional restrictions, greater acceptance for mistakes, and a strong social adherence to each other’s success to occur.

A considerable amount of literature has been generated describing how societies and emerging technologies have shaped our social and economic development.  This revolution has transformed our agrarian society into an industrial era and we are currently undergoing a digital/technological transformation.  In short, Moore’s Law, when applied to a social and behavioural setting seems to be a powerful force creating great upheaval in our daily lives. 

In parallel, much of the world has evolved from physical toil to analytical work effort and is migrating swiftly toward a demand of social intelligence competencies.  According to Florida (2010), the highest pay gap is found with those professions and people who have developed the social intelligence vs. those where physical or analytical abilities have traditionally dominated.

Project Management finds itself straddling the world of a greater process definition and a profession that is capable of providing a catalyst for our collective creativity and project innovation to flourish.   Project Managers should consider the following few steps as we enter the creative age:

  1. As a project begins to mature, pay less attention to task completion and focus more on the social behaviour of the project team.
  2. Apply tools and techniques (organizationally legitimatized or otherwise) that assist the project team to accelerate their collaborative learning and thereby allowing the team’s Emotional and Social Intelligence to escalate.
  3. Tolerate a wider range of mistakes and solutions.  The individual(s) and the project team will find its own path to success.

The avoidance of over-committing to traditional process is a march towards entropy’s dungeon for yourself, our profession, and your organization.

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Cherniss, C., & Goleman, D. (2001). Emotionally Intelligent Workplace: How to Select For, Measure, and Improve Emotional Intelligence in Individuals, Groups, and Organizations. (p.98). 35.  New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Florida, R. (2010).  The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity.  Toronto, ON:  Random House Canada.

Hamel, G. (2012).  What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation. (pp. 98 and 141).  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass Publishing.

Story Telling, Project & Knowledge Management Perspectives


Story telling is a start of a social and cultural journey that inevitably leads to a knowledge management artefact.  Whether our communications means are oral, graphic, video and/or written, innovative ideas and concepts are exchanged among people.  In a real sense, the storytelling and social interaction of people is the precursor to knowledge management.  Knowledge management as a codified structure data is as volatile as the organization itself.    Without the links back to the original storytelling from communities of practice or social networking applications to assist project teams, there is the increase of unknown risks that will impact project success.


Storytelling is prevalent in every organization.  It forms the informal social glue that keeps organizations together.  Story telling recants organizational successes, failures, what might have been, what never happened.  When someone comes up with what appears to be a new or innovative idea, the first layer of conversation typically involves looking at the inspiration from various perspectives, interpretations and analysis to determine if the idea is worth pursuing or seeking further encouragement.  This new story begins to infiltrate the social fabric of the organization.

[1] Andrew Cox writes “Thus these stories could be regarded as social in least three senses: because they were improvised socially, because part of their benefit was to produce a sense of belonging, and because some of the material of the stories is about people, customers.”

Social networking tools are an invaluable repository to capture this involving story.  The collaborative nature of social networking offers a plethora of communications levers from wikis, to documentation management, blogging, chat and others as means to explore the conversation.  The social inclusion of participants can be expanded or contracted as desired the idea morphs, ambiguity expands and rationality converges to validate or repeal the evolving artefact.  At its core, this is what storytelling is all about.

As this new reflective knowledge begins to take shape (e.g. research proposal, white papers, unofficial prototypes) and becomes solidified, the storytelling begins to give way to definable, tangible, explainable discussions and reviews.  In this way, the organization’s capacity begins to translate much of its tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.  Design features are refined, business decision support systems attempt to validate the commercial success, and operational support and strategic fit are investigated.  The original storytelling, it would seem, has fulfilled its purpose and now has been converted into a knowledge management process.  Is that really the case?

A counterforce to new storytelling and knowledge exploration is, ironically, the organization itself.  All organizations have a cultural definition that ebbs and flows over time.  The cultural definition can be viewed as the dominant storytelling trait of ‘this is how we do things around here’.  As business models are exploited, standard operating procedures are defined, organizational learning and growth ascend and the customer begins to rewards us with repeated business.  This is all well and good and imperative to ensuring the basic financial business model components are aligned. 

The difficulty stems from the fact that the organization has its own storytelling or messaging to get across to its community.  Sometimes new and old storytelling clash and if the old storytelling continues to prevail, the organization begins to stagnate.  The incumbent storytelling has its own cultural inertia and it may not be a simple matter to overcome.  This often results in good ideas going unnoticed such as Xerox with it PARC’s innovation and Nucor as a mini-mill giant to name a couple of well researched organizations. 

As importantly, being cognizant as to what is happening to knowledge management within the firm.  Organizations, like knowledge, are volatile identities with plenty of complexities.  Just because information is codified into a structured format doesn’t mean we can disconnect the social ingredients from the knowledge itself; however, this is often the starting point where knowledge management begins to completely take over.  To oversimplify, we have a problem, a cause and then a solution.  That solution, often time as it evolves into a business case, becomes a new project.

Project management often looks upon ambiguity as something that needs to be boxed in, “solutioned” and change-managed.  Without these qualifiers, projects will often undergo immediate stress fractures and project ‘failures’ are more likely than not.  This is a reasonable position to assume; however, this approach is allied with the working assumption that knowledge management is reasonably concrete and devoid of any social processes or input.  It is the absence of the social context from the original storytelling that is the source of the functional gap.

If there isn’t a community of practice and/or a social networking application that can complement the project team’s knowledge arsenal, the project team will probably suffer the slings and arrows of unknown project risks. 

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Andrew Cox. Reproducing knowledge: Xerox and the story of knowledge management. (2006 July 20).  Retrieved April 19, 2011, from

Robert Castel is the founder of Information Resource Technologies and is responsible for Business Development with Vinezoom. He has extensive experience implementing high risk, complex IT related projects in Canada, the US and United Kingdom.

As an independent project manager, Robert’s clients have been the major Canadian banks for national and international initiatives employing IT Service Management frameworks within voice and data infrastructures, application conversions, directory services and change management projects. In addition, he has worked with a Federal healthcare agency involving security and privacy of information related initiatives, and the Province of Ontario.

Robert is currently in the third year of Athabasca University’s Executive MBA Program.