Planning for disaster – the Potential-Problem Analysis

No matter how good your idea is, it’s wise to plan for failure before implementing. Don’t let unforeseen problems surprise you. Use the Potential Problem-Analysis and take possible future problems into account early on.

You have a great idea to solve your problem. You selected the most promising approach and sharpened your action plan. You even tested your main assumptions. You’re ready to go. It’s implementation time.

But as you will no doubt have experienced, even when implementing a seemingly brilliant solution, any number of things can go wrong. This is a fact of life and you won’t be able to fully rule it out. What you can do, however, is plan for failure.

Earlier, I wrote about the Pre-Mortem. A simple technique to quickly list what could go wrong, so you can take precautions. If you want a more complete overview of potential problems, and don’t mind spending a bit more time, you could also choose to do a Potential-Problem Analysis.

The Potential-Problem Analysis

The Potential-Problem Analysis is a way of mapping out potential problems and making sure you pro-actively deal with the most serious ones.

The method consists of 8 steps:

Step 1. Define the objectives

What are the things which absolutely must happen to successfully implement the solution? Make a list of all objectives, without which the project will likely fail.

Step 2. Generate a list of potential problems

Identify everything that could possibly go wrong. What are some of the weak spots in the plan? What are the moments where problems might occur? What could prevent you from reaching an objective?

If you have trouble identifying potential problems, use thinking techniques to generate ideas. You could, for instance, use the Time Traveller technique. Imagine yourself in the future, looking back on the project. What went wrong?

Other techniques that might help you visualise potential problems are the Wise Proverb and the False Rule.

Step 3. Identify the specific nature of each problem

For every potential problem you listed, answer the following four questions.
– What?
– Where?
– When?
– To what extent?

Step 4. Determine the amount of risk associated with each problem

For each potential problem, evaluate the potential seriousness and the probability that it will occur.

Select problems that involve high or moderate risk. Low-risk problems can be ignored for now (as it is rather impractical to take every tiny thing that could possibly go wrong into account).

Step 5. Search for possible causes of each problem

Use your experience and good judgement and write down what could cause the problems you listed.

Step 6. Estimate the probability of occurrence

How likely is each undesirable event to happen? Look at the possible causes and estimate the probability of each problem occurring. Use percentages.

Step 7. Develop means for preventing causes or minimising their effects

Generate solutions in advance. What can you do to eliminate the potential causes altogether? Can you reduce the likelihood of the listed problems rearing their ugly heads? What is the likelihood of each problem occurring after you’ve taken these preventive actions?

Step 8. Develop contingency plans

Even though you’ve described some preventive actions to be taken, it’s good to plan for disaster. Do some worst-case planning and specify exactly what actions will be taken if the problem occurs anyway. What will you do if your preventive actions are not entirely successful?

Preventive actions are usually less costly than contingency plans, so never skip step 7 in favour of step 8.

What preventive actions will you take to ensure a successful implementation of your idea?

Source: Techniques of Structured Problem Solving, Arthur B. VanGundy, Jr.

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