How do you teach senior consulting executives at F100 Financial Services firm to become more sensitive to risks that can arise at various stages of an engagement, to mitigate such risks, and to manage consequences that may arise from their decisions? This was the question that we answered with one of our most innovative classroom design programs. The learning need posed a unique challenge – it is easy to avoid risk in a training setting (especially if you know the topic of the training is risk mitigation), but much harder to do on the job. The solution: rather than tell senior consulting executives how to effectively mitigate risk on client engagements, or giving them "blue sky" to write a contract for a fictional project for which they would never see consequences of their choices, we asked them, in a 5-hour in-person program, to look at a fictionalized version of a catastrophic engagement, and perform an "autopsy" in a very particular way.
First, we described for participants the project end – a disaster involving litigation, costing the company millions of dollars. Then, we gave participants the engagement's contract and other relevant documentation and asked, "How would you revise this contract knowing what you know about how the project ended?".
Participants then proceeded to critique the engagement; for each major project phase, we provided them relevant engagement documentation and a script of key events for that phase of the project. We then asked participants to look backwards – "What would you have done differently at the beginning of this phase to help mitigate some of the risks that cropped up?," and forwards – "What do you propose the project lead do to direct the team moving forward into the execution phase, given the state the project is in?"
This cycle repeated for each project phase, with participants receiving a script of events occurring in a project phase and relevant documentation, and considering both what they would have done differently at the phase's onset and how they would act going forward, to mitigate risk. Through this process, we had participants analyze not only ways to mitigate risk up front, but to manage consequences of bad decisions to help a wounded engagement back onto its feet while it was in motion. This design was also intended to emphasize the difficulty of spotting risks – a perfectly solid-seeming contract could end in disaster, as could a few seemingly small changes to the contract's terms, or relying on a verbal agreement even for just a short period of time. This autopsy approach underscored the risks and consequences at each turn of the project.
Each phase of the autopsy concluded with group discussions that allowed participants to share their risk mitigation strategies with their peers in the workshop, all of whom were seasoned professionals with their own stories of projects gone wrong. Coaches wrapped up each phase by sharing pre-scripted war stories of real-life project disasters to reinforce key lessons learned, and chip away at the "this could never happen to me" mindset. The course ended with a discussion on how to effectively incorporate risk management into participants' current client engagements.
Key to the success of this course was the fact that the story was authentic – it exposed familiar issues and challenges that all course participants had grappled with at one time or another. The repeated observation cycle reinforced the reality that risks can accumulate in unexpected ways and with catastrophic consequences. The subsequent critique cycle underscored the essential nature of an effective risk mitigation strategy throughout the lifecycle of the project.
This project was well-received by the client, who recently selected the program as an example of excellence.