Published here April 2004.


Musings Index

Project Risk Management and Unexpected Outcomes

So much has been written about project risks and project risk management, yet relatively little attention seems to have been given to the possibility of unexpected outcomes. In a recent book "Risk Management: Tricks of the Trade® for Project Managers" by Rita Mulcahy, Appendix Two provides a list of over 600 risks, with associated causes and effects.[1] These have been provided by a large number of contributors, yet not one of the risks listed contemplates the delivery of the intended solution but with an unintended negative consequence.

In fact, this result occurs quite frequently in certain types of project. The particular type I have in mind is where the objective is to change people's behavior. Let me give you a local example. A certain intersection identified as 41st Avenue and MacKenzie Street in a generally residential area near us, was notorious for heavy through traffic, the number of accidents and the danger to pedestrians attempting to cross the road. Therefore, city officials decided that some action was needed and duly consulted local residents by means of an Open House to discuss options, followed by a survey to garner support for various alternatives.

The neighborhood was supportive of a traffic signal, but not supportive of diversionary traffic calming measures such as "No right turns". Some traffic already filters through the residential neighborhood to the South. Even though the public were alerted to the possibility that the signal could attract increased traffic, they still wanted to keep the south leg open for their own access.

However, "corner bulges" having the effect of narrowing the entranceway, apparently the "latest thing" in traffic management, were supported. These "bulges" were planted with shrubbery to emphasize the local residential nature of the streets. The general location of the traffic signal at 41st Avenue and MacKenzie Street is shown in Figure 1. The streets to the south of 41st Avenue are residential.

Figure 1: The effect of a traffic light and consequent filtering through residential streets
Figure 1: The effect of a traffic light and consequent filtering through residential streets

Now it so happens that at a parallel street, 49th Avenue, there is a bottleneck at the junction with Southwest Marine Drive as marked by the stop sign shown in Figure 1. This road handles traffic to and from the nearby university. Unfortunately, drivers seeing the backup of traffic for the stop-sign intersection, instead filter through the residential streets to the improved traffic flow at the traffic light intersection.

However, the unexpected outcome of the initiative is that as well as increased traffic flow, a new behavior by drivers has been introduced. The short-cutters are now using two streets with schools and school children walking along. This filtering is shown by the routes marked in red on Figure 1. The net effect is more dangerous traffic, not less.

Now a new proposal is being presented. It is proposed to put up no-right-turn signs along 49th Avenue prohibiting turns between the hours of 7:00 to 9:30 AM, the time when university students are short-cutting through the residential area. This plan is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Plan to change behavior again
Figure 2: Plan to change behavior again

Once again local residents have been consulted and are supportive of the proposal. After all, the traffic engineers should know what they are doing, right? But student drivers are notoriously resourceful, especially when it comes to avoiding irritating obstacles. So, will they really conform to expectations? More importantly, has anyone given any thought to the risk of further unexpected behaviors, leading to even more traffic controls? Until, that is, we reach the point where no one can get anywhere except perhaps on foot?

Do I have a solution? Of course I have a solution - but it is not politically correct!

1. Mulcahy, R., Risk Management: Tricks of the Trade® for Project Managers, Appendix Two, RMC Publications, Inc., MN, 2003, pp252-308.
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