Your Project’s Silent Killer: White Space Risk

By Joseph Krause

header-image-your-project's-silent-killer-white-space-risk

What is White Space Risk and How Can You Avoid It?

You’re opening a casino. The project you’re managing culminates in the grand opening of your casino, Quitters Never Win, in just 4 weeks. Your project plan houses all the necessary processes and checklist items to ensure you start and end on time…or so you thought.

In making sure you had all the best slot machines in place – from Wheel of Fortune to Kitty Glitter – you discover that no one ever applied for the liquor license. Upon further research, you discover the process to apply for and receive a license takes six weeks, and you need to shift your entire opening timeline to half a month later (or suffer from a room full of reserved gamblers devoid of liquid luck).

How did this step not end up in your comprehensive project plan?

For you project managers, this scenario is something that sends a chill down your spine. This is what you know as white space risk.

For those of you not as well-acquainted with the frightening phenomenon, white space risk is the scourge of project planning. It will sabotage your best laid plans if you don’t take proper precautions.

But enough drama. Let’s get down to it.

What is White Space Risk?

The Harvard Business Review wrote an article back in 2003 that defines “white space risk” as the chance that some required project activities won’t be identified in advance of the project start, leaving gaps in the project plan.

The article also outlines the differences between “execution risk” – the probable risk that defined activities won’t be completed – and “integration risk” – the likelihood that all the different initiatives won’t form a cohesive outcome.

While you can factor in the statistics for execution and integration risks, the unknown variable is white space risk. How many undefined tasks should you prepare for, and how do you prepare for something you aren’t prepared for?

Like in the casino scenario, the terrifying thing about white space risk is that you think you have everything accounted for ahead of time, but you know there are things that you don’t yet know. Project planning professionals are very familiar with this risk, and have experienced it firsthand. For those of you strategic planners out there, you might think that since you’re not in project management you don’t have to worry about white space risk. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to be the messenger here, and tell you why that’s not the case.

Managing White Space Risk in Strategic Planning

Strategic plan overseers might fall into a false sense of security because strategic plans tend to have longer time horizons and include less detail than project plans. There should be less room for error when you’re talking at a higher level about overarching goals, right?

The brutal reality is that any time you’re dealing with a work breakdown structure, there’s a good chance you can miss a critical step. That missing step is what will kill the momentum of your entire plan.

It’s my belief that that the traditional methods used for creating strategic plans increase white space risk because they’re not graphical enough. If you’re trying to tell what’s going on by looking at a spreadsheet, you’re going to miss gaps.

Cost of Using Excel for Strategic Plan Management

GUIDE – HOW EXCEL IS KILLING YOUR PLAN
Read this guide to learn the not-so-obvious dangers of using Excel for strategic plan management, and how to find something better.

Get My Guide

For example, if you think about why we upgraded from DOS based terminals to graphical user interface (GUI) on our personal computers in the 90s – it’s because the human brain responds better to iconography and images. Most of us are visual learners. If you apply the idea of using a GUI to plan execution, why would you use text-based methods to build your work breakdown structure? I promise there’s a better way.

Solutions for Decreasing White Space Risk

To reduce the opportunity for white space risk to rear its ugly head, we have developed the tree view feature (watch the video) within the AchieveIt platform. The tree view allows you to build your plan as if you used sticky notes on a whiteboard. This method ensures you’re able to see all the connection points within your plan, and allows you greater opportunity to identify missing key steps more often.

If you’re not already using AchieveIt and our tree view, for the time being, here are three steps to take when building and auditing your plans to help you decrease white space risk:

Step 1: Find all of your project plans or strategic plans from the past few years. You’re probably going to have to dig through multiple hard drives and play the version identification game to get the information you need.

Step 2: Conduct a post-mortem on each plan to get a sense of how successful your execution efforts were. Did you miss any critical steps? If so, how many steps were missed? Why do you think they were missed?

Step 3: Identify which tools you used to build out the plans and projects that were missing critical steps. Did you place your plan in a Word Document on your shared drive? Were you using Smartsheet to track your plan in a live spreadsheet?

It’s my suspicion that your answer to number three will be the typical answers I hear which include: Excel, PowerPoint, or MS Project.

Visibility is all-important in identifying gaps early and addressing them proactively. If you can’t see your plan at a 30,000-foot view, you’re going to miss applying for that liquor license, booking that conference hall, or installing that software connector that the entire success of your project wobbles upon, unseen until a critical moment.

By addressing this root cause of white space risk, your organization will be more open to exploring a better way to track and monitor your plan.