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Are You Guilty of Passing the Buck in Risk Management?

written by: Jean Scheid • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 6/4/2013

Do you blame project failures on company initiatives that were in place before your time? Do you point the finger at external stakeholders for project dilemmas? If you’re constantly blaming someone else, are you really leading?

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    It's Not My Fault!

    Do you play the blame game In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) Blog Network post, Brian Barnier ponders the PG&E gas explosion and whose fault the catastrophe really was. Did one side fail to communicate with another or fail to ask the right questions and implement proper processes? Barnier points out if the right questions were asked before the project began, perhaps the project wouldn’t have been a big failure. Instead it's a poor example of assessing and managing risks on the parts of many.

    Whether you’re new to a project methodology or even taking over mid-way through a project for that matter, if something’s not going right, is it a good idea to blame the methodology or the person who used to be in charge?

    I say no and beyond it making you look a little inadequate, it makes you look incompetent to lead or pick up the pieces and move toward success.

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    I Believe It Was So and So…

    That's not my department Taking control of risks in a project is your responsibility as the leader, no matter what stage of the game it is. Let me give you an example I recently experienced with my mortgage company who shall remain nameless—okay, it’s Morgan Stanley.

    I received a message on my answering machine from them telling me my payment was past due and to call them immediately, which I did.

    The first representative told me I was late and owed $100 in late fees that compounded daily! She also told me that because I hadn’t paid my property taxes, my account was now an escrow account (I pay my property taxes separately from my mortgage payment) and they would now take out my property tax above and beyond my mortgage payment and late fees, so I also had to pay an additional $135 on top.

    As I scratched my head, I told the representative, “I’ve always paid my mortgage on time and my property taxes are paid.”

    “Not according to our records,” she replied. “My screen says differently.”

    “When were you notified I didn’t pay my property taxes?” I asked.

    “Well it doesn’t show that here on my screen; that would be a question for the tax department,” she answered.

    “Can I talk to them?” I asked.

    “One moment,” she said and I did wait more than a moment.

    The second representative said she saw no record of me not paying my property taxes under the listed loan and assured with her name and extension in hand, I asked to talk to the first representative again—with another “one moment please” that turned into a long, long wait.

    This time, I got representative number three who told me I was not late on my mortgage payment and that was a mistake but her screen said I didn’t pay my property taxes and there was nothing she could do about the extra $135 because that wasn’t her department. I offered the name and the extension of the tax department representative I spoke to and she told me to hold—again.

    When she came back on the line she told me again there was nothing she could do because her screen was apparently God and in order to stop the screen from saying I must pay an extra $135, I needed to fax or mail a letter to the tax department so the message would disappear. What? Talk about passing the buck here!

    Stop and take responsibility Why should I have to write a letter to the tax department who told me my property taxes were not late and my account was not in escrow so they could press a magic button on the mortgage payment department’s side so the $135 didn’t show? And worse, the third representative told me it was the policy of the company to tell the customer it could take three months to clear up this dilemma so indeed they wanted me to keep paying the $135 until the matter (or the button) was pushed to clear the problem.

    I wanted to scream but I guess as a project manager, I knew this was poor risk management on the part of the company, not the poor representatives. So, I got the fax number and asked if they would take a credit card over the phone to pay the initial $135.

    “No,” said the third representative. "We do take checks by phone, but that is a $20 fee.”

    “Is there a supervisor I can talk to?” I hoped and prayed she’d say yes.

    “I can send you to his voicemail,” she said and then said, “Goodbye and thanks for calling Morgan Stanley.” I was disconnected to white space, not to any supervisor’s voicemail.

    Because I knew I didn’t owe the $135 and felt stymied by the entire useless conversation, I did nothing. I also knew my mortgage wasn’t late because I had a copy of my canceled check. I sort of laughed it off as one person or department passing the buck to another. Or, better yet, a stupid policy that didn’t foresee what would happen if one department was unable to undo what another department did. Ridiculous, I thought.

    The reason I mentioned the name of my mortgage company (Morgan Stanley) is because later that very afternoon, I received a phone call from them inquiring about my call to them and they apparently really do “record their calls for customer service.” This fourth representative apologized and told me they had listened to the tape, my account was fine and they were going to make some changes from department to department. I received an apology and was told I owed nothing and was not late. Now there’s a good example of not passing the buck and identifying and prioritizing risks so customers are happy!

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    How Effective Are You?

    Sometimes you have to carry the weight I felt proud and responsible for these new Morgan Stanley risk management procedures. It was my recorded call after all and I didn’t yell or call any of the four representatives a very bad name. I had won! But what about you and your methods when it comes to managing the what ifs? Do you play the blame game or pass the buck?

    Whether you are a supervisor, department head or a project manager, the titles mean the same thing—you are the HPIC (head person in charge) of each so-called position so it does fall to you to be able to handle the what ifs—and in a way that keeps things flowing smoothly.

    You can’t blame someone else for something you should have foreseen, can you? Can you blame someone who held the position before you for a process that is failing and turn your back or should you forget their name entirely because it’s your problem now? I think the latter is best.

    Think about the project you’re working on right now. Did you assess the risks, identify and prioritize them accurately? Did you communicate your risk management plan effectively? If you did and things still go awry, can you blame your team for not listening or yourself for not managing? Again, I think the latter is what upper management would say.

    Brian Barnier’s post in HBR is much more severe as he discusses the what ifs on the part of PG&E departments and other stakeholders who just didn’t communicate or ask the right questions resulting in a way more serious dilemma than my Morgan Stanley experience. But, the end result is still the same if you are indeed passing the blame or not taking responsibility for projects gone wrong.

    In fact, when I was a teenager, I often heard my family physician say he didn’t know it all and didn’t pretend to. I think as an adult that’s why I kept going back to him. If he wasn’t sure, he asked someone else who did know and followed their advice.

    The same holds true for project managers and while the PG&E debacle or handling the lives of patients may be on a much larger scale than the project you’re working on, it shouldn’t matter. Risks are risks and blame is blame. Suggesting your failures are the results of another is an inadequate response. Taking responsibility, however, will make you more trustworthy and respectable—by upper management, stakeholders and your teams.

    Those daydreams you have about, “If I only had done this” shouldn’t be daydreams but realities throughout your projects. Don’t pass blame. Instead, accept it, correct it and move on. If you question the directives of others, question them in depth and find out why a process is in place instead of using it just because it’s always been done that way.

    Those last six words, “It’s always been done that way” can and will be your demise as a good project manager when handling risks. Questioning isn’t holding up the project, it’s ensuring its accuracy and a great outcome. Abiding by those six words as gospel is poor risk management and if you do this, your career may be hanging by a thread. Something to think about indeed.

    How well do you manage risks? Do you play the blame game or pass the buck? Or, are you accountable for the role you play as the leader? Drop me a comment; your experience will help your peers become better professionals in the world of project management.