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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Wait for it…. Wait for it….

Hope is not a strategy: Rudy Giuliani

He who fights and runs away

May live to fight another day;

But he who is battle slain

Can never rise to fight again: Oliver Goldsmith

Time and risk have an interesting relationship in Project Management. It makes perfect sense to prioritize something that may occur next week ahead of something that could happen next year. This can result in a “kick the can down the road” mentality where all the interested parties merely postpone dealing with an obvious problem.

The PMBOK® discusses this very briefly, but only as a “Risk Urgency Assessment” where near term risks should be considered more carefully than more distant risks.

This is a great story that illustrates how time can be used to strategic advantage under the right conditions:

"One of your most ancient writers, a historian named Herodotus, tells of a thief who was to be executed. As he was taken away he made a bargain with the king: in one year he would teach the king's favorite horse to sing hymns. The other prisoners watched the thief singing to the horse and laughed.

"You will not succeed," they told him. "No one can."

To which the thief replied, "I have a year, and who knows what might happen in that time. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die.

And perhaps the horse will learn to sing."

-- "The Mote in God's Eye", Niven and Pournelle.

What a fantastic story! Confronted with a near term “high probability/high impact” risk, the thief chose to delay the imminent fatal event with the hopes that his circumstance would change! By injecting the passage of time into the equation, he changed the probability portion of the risk! In ‘real life” this is a perfectly rational strategy which falls under the “live to fight another day” philosophy espoused by Goldsmith.

This overly optimistic attitude about time changing things for the better is a fatal flaw for a Project Manager (PM). The PM’s job is to make sure that the work of the project (scope) is delivered when promised (schedule) within the allocated budget (cost). Risk management is crucial to this. If the PM is confronted with a risk that is a near certainty, there is no benefit to the project in delaying the inevitable! For a living being, every minute is precious. For a project, every minute costs money!

And that is the difference.

If a PM is confronted with a fact pattern that indicates that the project will fail, they should utilize the risk assessment techniques we have previously discussed. If there is no practical way to deliver the project, they should immediately disclose this to key stakeholders and recommend the project be terminated.

For the Project Manager, hope is not a strategy. And there is almost never a benefit in assuming that time will change things for the better.


I was having an exchange with a longtime colleague of mine about the personal risk associated with something that they were doing. This thing was completely optional, but the felt that they could navigate the risk by carefully following the rules. I pointed out that while you could safely play on a train track, 100% of people hit by trains were near the track! They pointed out that sometimes there were things bigger than yourself, and you had to accept personal risk for the perceived greater good. And I couldn’t agree more. Just pick your cause wisely!


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