Spinning risk into gold

Issue 3 of 5: How PMs spin risk into gold

It’s Thursday afternoon and your kickoff is running six minutes late. Shara, your new client point of contact, can’t steal any time for an upcoming handover meeting. Her team is overbooked and she’s frustrated as hell. The air is heavy with unrealized promises. Not good.

These, my friends, are red flags (also known as issues). The risks? Your project could blow its timeline, or client alignment might suffer. The project could end prematurely. In fact, you’ve just witnessed clues that indicate that there is a strong probability your client won’t have enough time on their end to support the project. Risks are what could happen on a project, and red flags are observable signals that indicate the likelihood of those risks occurring.

A good PM will always spot risks and red flags with their eagle eyes and have mitigation strategies in place. But a great PM will see how risks and red flags tie into your client and company health and face them head-on, embracing them for what they are: opportunities to build client trust, build team alignment, and ace the launch of your project deliverables. They spin risk into gold.

How reactive agencies handle red flags and risk

All agencies depend on project managers to call out risk. But reactive agencies don’t create a safe space for difficult discussions when they say things like:

  • “Don’t worry, nothing will go wrong” (toxic positivity)
  • “We can’t let our clients know what might go wrong—it’ll make us look bad (avoidance)
  • “This isn’t our fault, it’s the fault of our client/team/manager” (blame diversion)
  • “We don’t talk about bad things here (lack of psychological safety)
  • “If you think about bad things, it will make them happen (magical thinking)

The end result? Agencies begin to treat their PM like a Cassandra, the mythical Greek priestess with the power to see the future and the curse that nobody would believe her. In these reactive agencies, PMs are scared to speak up. They’re terrified (or too jaded) to call out the obvious things that detonate your agency’s cashflow or kill relationships. They are left out of pivotal conversations that help to unearth and offload or minimize more insidious risks. They fall silent or fall off the project cliff. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Facing risks and red flags head-on

Earlier in this series, we talked about how proactive agencies empower PMs to be lovable hardasses and listen to what PMs have to say. If there’s one place to start listening, it’s with conversations about risk. This can look like:

  • Letting PMs sit in on early sales meetings to identify risky situations and possible pathways to reduce them
  • Training PMs and their teams on effective risk management
  • Trusting PMs to have honest, open, and uncomfortable conversations with clients (”these are the possible risks we see, here’s how they could impact us, this is how we would manage that and make it safe, etc.”)
  • Encouraging cooperation and communication between AMs and PMs—contrary to popular belief, these two roles are beautifully complementary when they share the language of value
  • Recognizing the way that risk management relates to things like setting proper client boundaries and clarifying value and ROI

Risks and red flags aren’t signs of a bad project. They’re the reality of all projects, period. Proactive agencies know this and their PMs know it, too. The more we talk about them, the easier they are to spot, manage, and turn into brilliant opportunities.

Up next

Not so fast—we’re not done yet. Next week we’ll be talking about risks and red flags’ conniving cousin: scope creep.

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