How to Spot a Project Crisis Before Impact

In traditional Japanese martial arts, the aim is to use minimal force and effort to defeat your adversary. If you have to compete, you will be making life difficult. As practitioners develop their skill, they learn to practice their techniques at three increasing levels of sophistication and subtlety. 

Bear with me as I further this analogy. Go no sen represents a defensive counter move that responds to an attack. What is happening is clearly visible, so your task is to respond quickly to your attacker’s power. Before the detail of an attack is visible, your attacker will be physically committed to their attacking move and the more sophisticated student can anticipate the attack and blend with it simultaneously. This is called sen no sen.

The most skilled practitioners can read the attack even earlier, at the point their attacker becomes psychologically committed to attacking but possibly before their body knows how they will attack. Sensing the intent allows the practitioner to pre-empt the attack and deal with it with minimum effort and maximum control. This is sensen no sen.

If the martial arts analogy is not working for you, these levels have analogues in other physical activities. In soccer, we might think of a penalty shot, and ice hockey has the phrase: “Skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.” Is there an equivalent in project and risk management

what are the causes of risk in a project

Are You the Cause of the Crisis?

It is not as if we are not familiar with a large number of familiar reasons and triggers for project crises. Indeed, I could argue that many crises are ultimately caused by the project manager who is either complacent, over-confident, or fails in some way. For example, project managers might cause a crisis when they:

Are Too Complacent…

  • about their predictions and plans
  • about human error and human weaknesses
  • about random or unpredictable events, like the weather

Are Over-confident…

  • in planning
  • in systems and processes
  • in people


  • to notice outside influences
  • to predict the possibility of human error/human weaknesses
  • to heed warnings

How to Get Good Situational Awareness

As a project manager, you need to be aware of your responsibilities here. This means creating processes that help you to both spot the warning signs, and assess them objectively. Often however, it is not the systems that matter, as much as the way you implement them.

Here is an example from my own practice. Many project managers institute regular reporting cycles, where we gather information from team leads and synthesize it into a report. A common approach is to start preparing your formal report with your executive summary of the project status: the headlines. This is, after all, how report-writing courses are often taught.

This is, however, wrong and dangerous in the context of project reporting. It fosters “confirmation bias.” This is our tendency to notice facts and evidence that confirms what we already believe, far more easily than we spot facts that conflict. Where we do spot them, we often dismiss those facts as one-off outliers that are either of low significance, or even wrong. This, of course, can lead to us missing the one or two indicators of an impending crisis.

Instead, I prefer to assemble my project reports bottom up. Taking all the evidence and data and seeing what picture it forms and looking for variant data that needs further investigation. More often than not, the big picture matches my expectation (as you’d hope it would). Sometimes not.

The other important thing to consider is the metrics you will be monitoring, and what indicators might suggest problems ahead. Here is a table I compiled for my book Risk Happens! (Marshall Cavendish, 2011).

Use Your Intuition

Formal monitoring processes appeal well to your rational, deliberate thinking processes. But often the warning signs are present, yet subtle and not easily noticed. Luckily, your unconscious brain is more than capable of extracting tiny signals from a lot of noise. This is your intuition.

The problem is that sitting at a desk in a busy office, poring over charts, reports and tables is rarely the best time to access your deep unconscious insights. What our brains are good at is working on problems for long periods and finding patterns. Our busy lives, though, are ill-suited to giving us the time to notice the results of our unconscious processing.

Have you ever noticed that you get some of your best ideas and insights when out for a walk, daydreaming? Or maybe in the shower, or while you are having your morning coffee? These are not the times when your brain is actively working on the problem. Instead, these are times when your brain is quieter, and you are more able to hear the answers that your unconscious has developed over the last few days.

Meeting Room 5

For this reason, I make it a habit, when working on projects, to apply what I call my weekly “Next Bend Process.” This is a simple approach to seeing around the next bend, by deliberately allowing my conscious mind to go into idle mode. It is very simple: I take my notebook and a pen to a café, and order a coffee – and maybe a bun. I don’t take a phone or any other distractions. All I task myself with is sitting quietly with my coffee and mulling.

Sometimes ideas come – they usually do. Less often, they are big or momentous ideas that can change the path of part of our project. But they sometimes are. And that makes the whole process worth it.

It is also important that there is minimal chance of you getting disturbed. On the project where I first got into this habit, I would list my whereabouts on the team schedule as Meeting Room 5. When I got back one day, it turned out that one of my team had been looking for me and discovered that the offices we were based in had only four meeting rooms. From then on, Meeting Room 5 became code for Do Not Disturb – a status project managers should use sparingly and only with good reason. Being disturbed by team members and stakeholders is mostly what we are there for. It’s how we spot the patterns in the first place!

Horizon Scanning

In my previous article, I included a section on Horizon Scanning. This is a process you can use not just at the start of a project for identifying the risks, but during the project, for reviewing new risks and maybe impending crises.

You can often avert a future crisis by spotting shifts far enough in advance, so I think it is well worth repeating the SPECTRES framework here. Use this as a way to inventory changes on your project’s horizon, systematically.

horizon analysis in project management

Create a Risk Awareness Culture

Perhaps the strongest and most systemic approach to foreseeing potential crises is to build a strong risk awareness culture for your project and, more valuable still, for your organization. I shall be writing more about this in a future article.

This approach embeds risk awareness and risk management processes into every aspect of our work, rather than seeing risk management as a separate thread or work-stream within a cluster of project activities, alongside project planning and schedule monitoring, stakeholder engagement, testing and quality control, and others.

As project managers, we tend to compartmentalize different aspects of a large project into work-streams as a way of simplifying the complexity. Often this makes our lives easier, but can make it harder to synthesize the disparate small indicators into a clear understanding of how small effects can come together to create big impacts.

The Strategic Role of Project Managers

For this, you need to start seeing your role as a project manager as less of an operational manager of people and processes, and more as a strategic leader whose role is constantly scan your environment and speak with your people to pull together an holistic assessment of the trends underpinning your project.

A great way to prevent project crisis is by having the right tools for the job. is an online suite of software solutions crafted for project leaders, with collaborative tools for planning, monitoring, and reporting on your project. Try it out free with this 30-day trial.

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