AuthorsProject LeadershipProject ManagementRisk Management

Risk and Rio: Where to Begin?

The Olympics are well underway, and already risks have been averted and risks have been realized. In conducting any kind of comprehensive risk analysis of the Rio Olympic Games, the challenging question is where to begin.

The Olympic Games have a history of risk. But when examining the Games as a project, those in charge would be wise to take a project management perspective. That means by establishing the risk boundaries for the entire event and determining what’s wholly unacceptable.

Death always comes up near the top of the list, but for the Games, it’s a function of the different kinds of death. Will people die during the Olympics? Yes. But what deaths are unacceptable?

  • Death by terrorism
  • Death because of the venue
  • Death by sport

Suffice it to say that any of those would be completely debilitating for the organizers if they came to pass. When Samir Ait Said snapped his leg during the gymnastic vaults, millions reviewed the event on YouTube. Tragic? Yes. But is this within the realm of the sport? Also yes. Such incidents are acceptable because they go with the nature of the risk of sports.

Aside from death, are there other unacceptable risks? Yes. Anything that would besmirch the Olympic ideal. Notably, doping and ethical lapses come to mind. Will there be doping during the Games? Yes. But the organizers have taken extraordinary measures to ensure that doping will be caught and that the athletes involved will suffer penalties.

Note the distinctions. Death cannot happen. Doping may happen, but the consequences are severe.

And what of ethical lapses?

They may happen, and the organizers will strive to minimize the impact on the Games.

It’s a tiered system, and it should be in place (should have been in place) long before the opening ceremonies.

Understanding a Tiered Risk System

On our projects, we should take a page from Rio. It’s very easy to identify risks early and then worry only about the risks we’ve identified. Instead, the first page needs to be written on risk tolerances and thresholds. And while we’d like to say that no serious risks are acceptable, some are more acceptable than others.


First, identify those conditions that will change the very nature of the project. The 1972 Palestinian terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics changed everything for those Games and for every Olympic event into the future. From that point forward, terrorism became a show-stopping issue for Olympic planners. A failure to plan for terrorist activity would be seen as a complete and utter failure in terms of project risk.

Once those risks are identified, their nature should be communicated to everyone involved in every aspect of planning, from construction to transportation to ceremonial activity. Everyone needs to know what’s completely outside the accepted boundaries.

Second, identify those conditions that will change the public’s perception of the effort’s efficacy. While Olympic doping is the analogy, in most projects, it’s anything that violates the law or public policy. When we are working in an organization where credibility matters, skirting the law or taking personal advantage of public policy should be a non-starter. In order to ensure that these risk practices are put in place, it’s important to share a common understanding of what the laws are, and what public policy is.

Surprisingly, even the most senior personnel in some organizations lay claim to an inability to understand the law. They blame legal failings on the justice system, rather than acknowledging that ignorance of the law is not considered a defensible excuse. Our role in this aspect should be to both identify the lack of tolerance for such violations and to spell out, unequivocally, the repercussions of failure to comply. (And such compliance standards need to go from the trenches to the board room.)

Finally, the third category is what might be called the “lesser tolerances.” While ethical lapses may fall into this category in some organizations, in others, ethics are everything. No matter where they are “tiered” in the organizational tolerances, it’s important to know the relative reaction to them. A first offense may result in a warning. A second may result in a demotion. A third may result in firing. Note that these reactions need to be clear from the beginning in order to provide clients, coworkers, management, team members, and all other stakeholders with a belief that our risk systems are functional and fair.

As we watch the Games, one of the great aspects of the events is the sense that the participants are on a level playing field and are not being helped unreasonably by the Olympic system. In all aspects of life, and especially projects, it’s vital to ensure that we have a common understanding that the same criteria will apply. And if we set it up well in advance, like good project managers, we are taking a critical step to be truly Rio-risk ready.

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