Auteur: Wichard Hulsbergen

When visiting companies, I often see perfect risk management procedures. These methods are puzzled out by the quality department or by the management and are implemented top down.
And when it is time to do an internal ISO-audit, all the forms will be filled, everybody is pleased that the paperwork is in order again and goes on doing their actual work.

Sounds familiar?

Please stop this time consuming paperwork. Risk management is not about doing chores, it is about making better decisions and getting the risks that matter out of people’s underbellies and on the table.

An IT-company once told me they sometimes are invited to test the IT-security of companies. To do this, they send an email to all employees containing a contaminated link. They say it is not even interesting to know how many people click on the link (around 70%(!)). What matters is, how many people call the helpdesk and say “I think I just did something stupid.”

There is one condition that MUST be met in order for risk management to work: Team-members need to feel free to speak up! As Amy Edmonson explains in her must-see TEDx-talk, nobody wakes up in the morning eager to be regarded as ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative. From childhood, everybody has adopted some very simple and effective methods that guarantee personal safety in an unsafe environment: 1. Don’t ask questions, 2. don’t admit weakness or mistakes, 3. don’t offer ideas and 4. don’t critique the status quo.

And yet for risk management to work, it is VITAL that people feel themselves safe to ask uncomfortable questions, talk about their own or somebody else’s mistakes, offer ideas and bring their fears and gut feelings on the table.

If a safe-to-speak-up environment is not available, a book full of procedures will still have no effect whatsoever. It’s easy to fill risk registers with obvious risks, or risks of which cause and influence lay outside the team. But risks regarding interfaces within the team or an employee voicing his bad feelings about the optimistic goals of a manager is where things get interesting.

The definition of “team” in this blog is quite broad. A team could be just two co-workers, a task-force within a company, the company as a whole and even a integral projectgroup with member from different parties can be considered a team.

The only real prerequisite is that you share a common goal, and work together to achieve it. So a group of angry neighbours resisting the building of a highway through their back yard can never be a team with the building company. But if they get over their dispute and find common ground on -say- achieving security during night hours, they can become a team.

So what can you do to achieve a safe environment to speak up?

First thing that you can do is know where you stand. To do this, fill in the speak-up-maturity test as described below. You can send emails, make a google-form or organize a team-session. In teamsessions it can be helpful to have an independent party organize the communication as they can be impartial and see things from a fresh perspective. Free example:

On what level are team members free to ask sensitive questions?
1. Ignorant: Questions are not appreciated, just get the job done.
2. Passive: Disturbing questions lead to awkward situations and tend to be ignored, as not to influence the atmosphere.
3. Reactive: Management will listen to concerns and act appropriately
4. Pro-active: Team-members are actively asked their opinions on sensitive questions, and people feel taken seriously and know what has been done with their questions.
5. Optimizing: The team-culture tries to improve itself

On what level do you rate the environment to admit mistakes or express insecurity?
1. Ignorant: Mistakes are not appreciated, they will lead to a culture where nobody cares that mistakes are made.
2. Passive: Expressing mistakes or doubt is fine, but as we need to keep people accountable, te follow-up can be firm.
3. Reactive: expressing insecurity or admitting mistakes is encouraged.
4. Pro-active: The team actively creates a safe environment for speaking up, the manager sets the example.
5. Optimizing: There is a culture of freedom of speach, where mistakes are considered part of the learning-process, and are actively followed-up.

On what level do you rate how the team is open to new ideas?
1. Ignorant: Last time I offered an idea, someone got offended, so I’ll better not do that again.
2. Passive: All good ideas are welcome! Just be expected to follow up on it yourself
3. Reactive: There is a process of monitoring ideas so they don’t get lost. It feels OK to come up with an idea.
4. Pro-active: Teammembers are invited to come up with ideas. People feel better when they have offered ideas and will do it again.
5. Optimizing: The team uses suggestions and ideas to enhance their performance and tries to lower the bar to engage.

On what level do you rate the openness of the team to critical opinions
1. Ignorant: tried it once. bad idea.
2. Passive: Critical opinions are discussed, but just among direct collegues.
3. Reactive: The team is perceptible to critical opinions, and will deal with it appropriately.
4. Pro-active: Expressing doubt or critisism is actively encouraged, and most people feel free to do so.
5. Optimizing: The team is constantly trying to rejuvenate itself by asking members where they see room for improvement, and act upon it.

The good, bad and ugly
● What are positive things you can say about how safe you feel in the team to speak up?
● Can you think of actions that could help improve things and make people feel safer to express doubt, ask questions, offer ideas and be open about their mistakes?

Creating the right environment

So now you know where the team standshow to create an environment where teammembers feel safe to ask questions, come forward with their doubts or express their opinions?

It’s a fact that people feel safer in smaller groups. That’s why in a meeting with 5 people, often more questions are asked then in an meeting with 30.

It’s also a fact that exemplary behavior from someone in the top of the hierarchy helps. If the boss never talks about his own mistakes or doubts, how could he expect employees to step up?

And lastly, confidence must be given the opportunity to grow. When teammembers experience that speaking their mind is regarded positively, and it is clear what is being done with it, they will come back with more openness.

Further suggestions

As Edmondson suggests: The (project)-manager can create the rationale for speaking up: Express that there is enormous uncertainty ahead and there is enormous interdependence. We can’t know what will happen and we NEED everybody’s mind and voices in the game. Say “I might miss something I need to hear from you”.

Make it fun! invite everybody to deliver ONE mistake they have made that they have really learned from. This could be done in workshop-format where the manager kicks off by writing down his own favorite mistake. If the safe-maturity-level is still low, you can have small groups discuss among themselves and come up with their favourite mistake so it is still a bit anonymous. Next rate all mistakes: 1-10 points for embarrassment-level, 1-10 for impact on the project and 1-10 for learning effect for the group. Added up, the mistake with the most points is awarded a grand prize.

Create a SIMPLE system in which to track suggestions and ideas. A free tool like Trello could work, and the company Pridea also has a nice platform. If concerns leads to identified risks that could have serious impact on goals or ambitions, a risk register might also be the best place to keep track of actions, reserved risk-funds and impact on the planning.

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