28 May 2020

Systematic & Active Risk Management

Author/Compiled by
Janek Hermann-Friede (seecon)
Zeina Annab (BORDA)

Executive Summary

Risk management means anticipating what might go wrong and taking action to reduce uncertainty to a tolerable level. Risk can be perceived either positively (upside opportunities) or negatively (downside threats) (ASSOCIATION FOR PROJECT MANAGEMENT 2020).

Active and successful risk management requires the systematic application of management policies, procedures and practices. This pertains to all forms of communicating, consulting, and contextualizing, but particularly to attempts at identifying, analysing, evaluating, monitoring, reviewing, and reacting to risk. Risk identification means systematically searching out risk sources and events, as well as their causes and potential consequences. Risk analysis, on the other hand, describes the process of comprehending the nature of risk and determining the risk level (i.e., the magnitude of a given risk or combination of risks, measured by their likelihood and potential consequences) of a  specific situation. Risk evaluation means systematically matching the results of risk analysis with risk criteria to determine whether a given risk and/or its magnitude is acceptable or tolerable; it also helps you to select the necessary course of risk treatment. Options for treating risk typically include: 1) avoiding it by deciding not to begin or continue the activity incurring the risk; 2) taking – or even increasing – the risk to pursue an opportunity; 3) removing the risk source; 4) changing its likelihood; 5) changing its consequences; 6) sharing the risk with another party or parties; 7) making an informed decision to retain the risk (International Organisation for Standardization 2009).

See our practical experiences, learnings and recommendations below.

Why you should care

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Every project faces unwanted risks. Proper risk management enables you to exert more control over possible outcomes.

What really matters: Lessons Learned & Recommendations

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Invest resources to detect conflicts and opposition early

Misunderstandings, political powerplays, other competing projects in a community, as well as personal issues and community dynamics all can spell trouble for your sanitation project. The longer such project-related conflicts remain undetected, the more difficult and resource-intense it becomes to resolve them. In the worst case, such conflicts may kill the project. This is why it is vital to establish a system that allows for the effective identification and prevention of possible conflicts.

The economic, political, and social dynamics surrounding sanitation projects are complex and often difficult to grasp. Therefore, it is highly recommended not to rely on a single source of information. Instead, we suggest to:

  • Develop an extended network in order to receive reliable information on current developments. To this end, try to forge personal relationships between the project team and local interest groups as well as community members of different backgrounds and age groups.
  • Regularly meet with these informants and listen to how they view developments relating to your project. Explicitly ask them to notify you if they hear of any developments or possible conflicts that might affect your project.
  • Work with your local project committee as well as local partners / stakeholders from different interest groups to gather independent information and form your own community intelligence.
  • Regularly reflect on risks. Continuously update your community intelligence with the information obtained through the groundwork outlined above. Discuss any new developments with project management and your fellow team members. Identify and prioritize emerging risks and decide which actions need to be taken to mitigate them.

Be prepared for staff turnover in all key institutions you work with

Given the extended implementation periods of sanitation projects, it is highly likely that key staff will change at ministries you work with (and rely on) as well as at other relevant organisations, both at the national and local levels. In the case of ISSRAR, this occurred in the form of staff rotation within organisations as well as when several ministries were restructured and responsibilities reassigned. The resulting staff turnover required extensive efforts to reintroduce the ISSRAR project as well as build trust and working relationships with people whose support was essential for the project’s success.

To minimize the effects of staff turnover, it proved helpful to establish contacts in the most important ministries and organisations that we worked with.

When positions at any of our project counterparts or partner organisations changed, we made sure to rebuild relationships in a timely manner. We reintroduced the project in several personal meetings, which allowed us to not only highlight the relevance of our intervention but also to introduce the people behind it, so that project-related communication did not remain an anonymous process. When turnover of high-level staff occurred, we closely coordinated our efforts with the donor organisation and requested their support in reintroducing our project. This was instrumental in speeding up the process of refamiliarisation.

Stay clean: adhere to previously agreed-upon standards

Infrastructure projects are highly prone to corruption and vulnerable to risk of mismanagement. It is important to make all possible provisions to mitigate such risks - both internally and in your relationships with external actors.

For this purpose, project management should commit to a culture of integrity, proactively formulating and communicating integrity standards both within and outside the organisation.

Internally, several risk areas are particularly prone to misconduct. Among others, these include favouritism in HR management, nepotism and collusion in the procurement of services and goods, and misuse of project assets for private gain. The Integrity Management Toolbox provides a comprehensive overview of internal integrity risks and measures to mitigate them. Should staff members commit integrity malpractice, it is of crucial importance to take the necessary disciplinary actions.

It is just as important to take a clear and clean approach to external actors. You’ll want to apply established standards like the FIDIC guidelines to provide for sufficient safeguards in tendering processes. Following approved standards and procedures is also an important to systematically prevent or react to corruption that may occur outside of your direct control.

Maintaining integrity in your relationships with local stakeholders can be difficult. As opposition against sanitation projects is often rooted in local political interests, the line between engaging with key actors and doing favours for them can easily be blurred. It is therefore important to foster regular and open exchanges among team members in order to discuss how best to manage sensitive situations within the local community. In the case of ISSRAR we often discussed providing contracts to local organisations who clearly wanted to share in the profits. We always opted not to do this unless there were well-defined tasks for which local organisations were the best fit. This ethically correct approach proved the only viable option, as we encountered so many actors wanting to benefit from the project that we had to keep a clean slate to avoid additional opposition.

Never waste a good crisis!

Do not expect that you will be able to implement a sanitation project without encountering conflicts and related crisis situations. In the case of ISSRAR we were rather surprised that conflicts only began to emerge fairly late in the project preparation phase, as it was clear from the outset of the project that its success would depend more on politics and community engagement than on technical efforts. Expect crisis situations throughout the project cycle. If they materialize, manage them rigorously and use them to correct your mistakes.

Here are some of the key lessons we learned from various crisis situations:

  • Tell people clearly what time it is. Once the project encounters a critical conflict or crisis, you need to make sure that everybody involved understands the gravity of the situation. Waste no time in organising a meeting with all team members and explaining the situation to them. Here you will also need to clearly communicate your expectations. Everybody has to come out of the meeting ready and prepared to support the measures that need to be taken.
  • Make sure that your team continues to do productive work by prioritizing the tasks necessary to manage the crisis. If need be, move up tasks that were originally scheduled for a later stage to ensure everybody continues their work. In crisis situations, it is especially important that the team understands that now is not the time to take a break.
  • Control external communication. In crisis situations, external communication can easily be misinterpreted. It is therefore important to determine who is allowed to communicate with whom, and to ensure that despite any potential issues you may still need to sort out internally, external communication remains consistent.
  • Engage in reverse engineering, stating clearly what needs to be done to resolve the crisis. Do not limit this to task or output related achievements but consider the underlying causes of opposition or conflict, which are often linked to trust issues or personal interests.
  • Make sure you listen and read in between the lines: when speaking with stakeholders that are involved in the crisis at hand, listen carefully and seriously consider their suggestions. Decide whether their ideas make sense to you and if they are feasible. If so, integrate and implement them directly. This demonstrates that you are taking all conflict parties seriously.
  • Do not be afraid to make painful decisions during a crisis. In retrospect, you will be able to see the origins of your project’s crisis. These may stem from flaws in the project’s conception, from staff unable to handle complex tasks and responsibilities, or from team dynamics that simply did not work out. To solve a crisis, such issues need to be tackled head-on. While some changes will be hard for those directly affected, it may still be easier to convey negative news during a crisis. This way, people won’t lose face as they might in day-to-day operations.
  • Clear the air. Crises often reveal underlying personal concerns and dissatisfactions. Embrace the issues your team raises and use this opportunity to find solutions, which will require additional efforts from everybody. Take some time to create a safe space and allow the team to raise their concerns while prioritizing them. Clearly communicate what is expected from team members and management. Confirm your commitment to the agreed changes on the sides of management and the team.
  • Celebrate achievements. It is impressive how much teams are able to achieve in crisis situations. This is often overlooked while you are still in crisis management mode. To inspire confidence that the situation can be solved, highlight the achievements that your team has already attained, and thank them for their efforts.

Further guidance to manage risks

Integrity Management for Water Sector Organizations

Health Risk Management

Risk Management

Library References

Alternative Versions to