Are we over-doing Risk Management?

Published on the 20/01/2016 | Written by Gary Nelson

risk management

For many years, New Zealand seemed oblivious to risk, notes Gary Nelson. “She’ll be right” chorused around the country as projects began, and usually succeeded…

Whenever obstacles were put in the way, there always seemed to be a way to work around them and get things done, with (or without) number 8 wire – but no more.

But now, the pendulum has come full swing, and Risk Management has taken over nearly every facet of our lives at home, school, work and on our projects. However, paying too much attention to risk is not necessarily a good thing.

When I first arrived in NZ from Canada back in the early 1990’s, I was struck by the endless optimism of the people I worked with here. We were delivering a project that spanned multiple years and the full length and breadth of New Zealand, with a dedicated team behind it. I don’t recall anyone worrying about what might or might not happen. I rarely heard ‘risk’ mentioned in the office, if at all.

We had the plan and the schedule, we got to work, and when things went off track, we recovered, adjusted and kept moving forward. If there was a glitch in the system, the local system administrator would grin, say “kick it in the guts, she’ll be right” and reboot the server.

After the project finished, I went home to Canada with my Kiwi wife and we raised three young boys. I also brought home with me some of that boundless Kiwi optimism, which served me well on projects for many years. Even though Risk Management was becoming more common on projects at that time, it was at first used sparingly – and was seldom permitted to take over a project. It was a source of awareness, guidance and advice that assisted planning, certainly – but that was about it.

Over the years, Risk Management crept into many other areas of life: as children were no longer allowed to climb trees or scrape knees and flying foxes and climbing nets were removed from playgrounds. When I grew up, you always knew several kids who broke an arm or leg over the summer, and proudly sported their cast at school. Today, a child breaking an arm or leg is considered a drastic event, requiring someone to be ‘at fault’, endless paperwork, and a new risk management plan be put in place wherever it occurred.

When we moved back here in 2008, I was shocked to find that New Zealand was even more advanced than Canada in the area of Risk Management – with crippling effect. “She’ll be right” is but a distant memory, and it seems no project is allowed to start without a rigorous Risk Management plan signed off six ways. Sometimes it feels like more time is spent discussing how things could go wrong, than in planning how things should go right.

While a certain amount of Risk Management certainly makes sense – especially in Health & Safety – I would argue that having too much of it is killing our projects. Overly focusing on negative possibilities saps the energy and enthusiasm from your team, for who could possibly be excited about starting a project that has such a long list of potential problems? If you spend more time thinking positively about your goal, you are far more likely to achieve it.

We need a more balanced approach to risk, and to revive that Kiwi optimism, because we learn and grow when things don’t quite work out as planned.

We also need more kids climbing trees and scraping knees.


Gary Nelson is a Project Manager, father of three boys and author of four project management books. He has developed several methodologies and worked on numerous projects in the private and public sectors over the past 26 years. His international experience includes projects in New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US and Canada.

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