More change initiatives will turn on satisfying executives as to the risks being taken on (and the ways these will be managed or abated) rather than simply on financial business cases.
I say this because the last few years have seen this already emerge in connection with large scale program management exercises, and with substantial portfolio overhauls.
What was even more interesting was a tale told to me by a noted industry watcher and advisor, who related the story of a CEO who had deep misgivings about a planned venture.
The advisor demonstrated a technique — rapid fire questions — with the executive time, to help highlight the risk status of the venture. Within minutes the CEO was satisfied that the organization should not move forward. Subsequent events demonstrated that this was the correct decision.
So how does rapid fire risk assessment work?
The idea here is to prepare a question list with as many questions on it concerning potential risks — both arising from doing what is planned and by not doing it, and then from the way it is being approached — as you can.
Oddly enough, the goal is not to worry about the answers at this point (they will be validated later).
The real purpose of the rapid fire approach is to see how quickly a question is answered. If the team around the table is unable to answer a solid majority of the questions immediately upon each being asked, it is a substantial sign that the risks have not been properly assessed, and that a decision to defer or disallow the planned actions should immediately be made.
In the case of my colleague, his approach was to give the table five seconds to have an answer begin to come out (time spent going “umm”, “ahh”, “well…”, and so on did not count as ‘answering’). If an answer wasn’t underway, the question was given an “X” on his scoresheet and he asked the next question. A waffling answer would likewise be cut off and an “X” scored.
Any reasonable answer — whether it was right or wrong was resolutely not assessed at the time — was given a tick-mark and the questions continued.
Under no circumstances should answers be debated or even amplifications be taken during this process.
A scribe should record answers which earned a tick mark (and I believe recording the session is a key to capturing what is said, as the pace of the session makes it difficult for the scribe to keep up).
The session should not be given time to take a pause, as the goal is to find out if the answers are “at the team’s fingertips”, and any break in the pace of questioning gives people at the table time to anticipate possible questions and begin to rationalize answers.
The session continues until either the decision-maker terminates it, or the questions are exhausted.
A client once me asked how they know they have all the right questions on their list. It is necessary in this process to recognize that the list can never be “right”: it will always be incomplete. Nor should questions descend in deep details (this seems to always lead directly into a discussion of the points).
It is fairly easy to come up with 100 or so questions for a major initiative, drawing upon topic areas such as “change in the workplace”, “human resource issues”, “finance issues”, “schedule issues”, etc.
The goal in any event is not to be exhaustive: what you are looking for is the general tone (sounds prepared, or doesn’t sound prepared). As with a clinical trial process for medical research, negative results stop the initiative right then and there.
Also, there should not be a “standard question set” used in the enterprise, or else the meeting will occur with the standard questions ready to be answered (and you won’t learn if the risks have actually been considered, or just the questions prepared for).
Select someone not involved with the initiative to prepare a question set for the risk assessment meeting. Give them no “previous sets” to work from: you get far better results by letting their “thinking through” of potential risks drive the questions that are asked.
Previous question sets can be useful if a whole area that ought to be asked about is omitted, but review these after the session is held (and if the change initiative has survived its encounter with the rapid fire process).
The years which lie ahead — starting now, not some indefinite time in the future — will be filled with large and risky ventures. This is inherent in times of economic upheaval and turmoil.
Programs that survive the rapid fire technique are programs that can be driven to successful completion, for the confidence that the organization can handle the change grows through this type of process.
In the space of 90 minutes you can handle 100 questions (usually, 30-45 is more than sufficient): rapid fire risk assessment is not, in other words, a huge time demand on the relevant leadership team members. Give it a try and you too will master a very effective tool in your change management and approval process arsenal.
(Incidentally, this is an excellent technique to assess safe-fail experiment proposals as a source of innovation — indeed, for those who are wary of the technique, this might well make a safe-fail starting point.)