The start of any new project brings a rush of emotions with it: excitement, hope, exhilaration. There’s always a chance that your project could revolutionize the world, or bring you fame and fortune. However, on the flip side, there’s a much higher chance that your project could fail somewhere along the way. Every project incurs costs, whether it’s your time, money, or effort. The road to project success is seldom a smooth one, so you need to evaluate the cost to yourself and plan for the project’s risks and margins for error over the its entire course.

Why plan for risks that may never come to pass?

It’s easy to envision a project’s ideal path to completion, but this isn’t the version you should focus on planning for. As a rule of thumb, plan for the worst and hope for the best. You should plan for the best insofar as mapping out the technical details to get to the finished product, but ultimately you need to take the time to come up with various scenarios in which things could go wrong. It’s an unpleasant exercise, but by conceptualizing these scenarios, you allow yourself to explore ways of coping with problems without the pressure of urgency. For projects that have limited budgets, you can also plot out what costs could be incurred should things go sideways. This enables you to plan ahead and nip potential problems in the bud as soon as they happen.

How to plan for the unknowable?

So how do we go about planning ahead for disaster scenarios? First, we have to delve into all the major areas wherein projects might derail. This is where it can be helpful to revisit the project management triangle of constraints: time, cost, and scope. A project might have its timeline move up due to external forces, or issues may arise that push the completion date our further and further. A project’s costs might grow as the team runs into problems during execution, and on top of that, your stakeholders might demand more features, but still expect completion within the previously agreed upon timeline. To plan for these situations, you need to be active and diligent from the outset. Keep a prioritized backlog of work for the project, and revisit it daily. When new features are requested, make it clear to stakeholders that something has to give, and that either timeline or existing scope must be considered. By having an idea of your team’s work priorities, you can go back to the stakeholder with a proposal for what work might be swapped out. Forecasting costs up front can help you build up a buffer, so when extra costs start to incur, you might be able to use your buffer as you address the issue particulars. Some plans won’t be as clear as these, but the key is to think about them early so when disaster strikes, you won’t be scrambling to find a solution.

You won’t think of everything.

In the initial planning of a project, you already are planning for completion in the ideal case. In a completely controlled environment, this planning would be sufficient, but the reality is that there are countless external factors that could come into play at any time. You need to start planning ahead for solutions to potential problems and think ahead about coping mechanisms. It’s never too late to start this process. This will save you and your team grief should any of these scenarios arise, and potentially save your project.

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