Is Project Risk Management about threats or opportunities?

This is the second article of our series on Project Risk Management

In this article we will discuss key definitions related to a common debate on risk management, which is: are risks always threats or we can consider opportunities as risks as well?

Two School of Thoughts

When we discuss risk management or project risk management, there are two main school of thoughts.

The first school of thoughts view risks as threats; always. Human nature lead people to think of a “risk event” as “threat”, “danger”, “hazard”, or any other word that reflect negative or bad situation.

Another school of thoughts; mostly reflecting a business perspective, view “risk events” as uncertain events that could have negative or positive consequences on the objective of the task, project, or mission that we are undertaking.

Regardless of which school one follows, we need to shift our paradigm to think of positive and negative consequences to events on our projects and our lives.

If you subscribe to the second school of thought, then you already “understand” or “accept” that risks could be a threat or an opportunity.

On the other hand, if you are from the first school, then you can continue to think of risk as bad but you also need to think of opportunities.

Current Reality of Practices

Based on our observations from numerous project management and project risk management classes that we have led, the focus is mostly limited to risk being threats … and therefore risk management is about the threats to the projects. Even in situations where people accept that risk management is about the threats and opportunities they maintain a focus on the threats and ignore the opportunities. This is what we call the “wishful thinking syndrome”, meaning since it is an opportunity so it is OK if it happened … forgetting that a risk is uncertain and may or may not happen.

If we accept the concept that risks are threats and opportunities; then we can discuss risk and opportunity management. Here again, the vast majority of participants struggle with this concept and could not relate to what would be an opportunity.

Missing Out on Opportunities

If an organization focuses on the threats only – then we could be missing out on great opportunities.

For example, (simplistic example) if there is an opportunity that would allow us to save three weeks on a project and a threat that could cause us to lose a week. Where would you focus?

  • If the threat happen but not the opportunity – we lose a week (bad)
  • If they both happen – OK we gain two weeks (gain three, lose one – net gain of two)
  • If we can eliminate the threat and ensure that the opportunity happen – then we gain three weeks

In this case, do you think you can still afford to miss out on the opportunities?

How do we change the mindset?

Take a look at the next image, is the shark a threat or an opportunity? If you are afraid of sharks then you view them as threats. On the other hand, there are people who makes a living from diving and swimming with shark. So once again, is this a threat or an opportunity?



We will be touching on project risk management (threats and opportunities) in future articles.

Please share your thoughts.

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About Mounir Ajam

Mounir Ajam is eager to awaken the giant of project management within individuals, organizations, and nations! Mounir is a project management author, executive, consultant, and social entrepreneur. Mounir is open for further learning and knowledge sharing. He has global experience working on projects in the United States, Europe, South East Asia, West Asia, and Africa. He has been privileged to work on multiple small projects and mega projects.

  • JP d’Hotman

    It is unfortunate that opportunities are most often not considered as part of the project risk management process as these can no doubt be beneficial to the outcome of any project. Risk management is one of these areas of Project management which is not well understood and is often confused with other aspects of the engineering process such as the hazop study. I have found that the leaner the project management team becomes the greater the tendency is to overlook processes such as risk management. Has anyone done a study on this? Does anyone really know what the real cost of making processes such as Planning and control, risk management communication and stakeholder management lean is?

  • Mounir Ajam

    Agree but we need to be careful with one thing — opportunities are not ONLY about turning a threat into a positive by dealing with it. There are positive things (independent of threats) that we should exploit – pursue in order for us to capture such opportunities

  • Basil Romaniszak

    It is a case of is the glass half full or half empty. Our school systems have fallen short in providing the mind set you prescribe to. I believe we have to continually remind ourselves that no matter how bad (threatening / risk) it may seem there is always a positive to every situation.

    In what appears to be a threat (risk) one needs to see that there is an opportunity to succeed if you manage that threat in a positive open and creative mind set. All risk even those that appear to be negative provide an opportunity to turn it around. There is always a choice and alternate method we just need to be open to the option / opportunity to see it.