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Nov 22

RADAR Roundtable Output – Early Warning Signal by Tony Llewellyn and Edward Moore

Early Warning

An industry roundtable exploring how project teams can better collect and then act on signals emanating from their team members indicating trouble ahead.

This Roundtable led by Edward Moore and Tony Llewellyn and hosted by ResoLex on 17th November 2016 is part of the RADAR knowledge community created by ResoLex.

The topic, supported by studies and empirical research shows,

  1. How project teams consistently fail to collect and then act upon the weak signals emanating from the wider team indicating trouble ahead
  2. How picking up Early Warning Signals (EWS) is an essential component of any risk management strategy
Tony Llewellyn

Tony Llewellyn

Collaboration Director at ResoLex


Edward Moore

Chief Executive at ResoLex

The conclusion from attendees is that as projects become larger and more complex, technology and good behavioural planning is essential in creating a simple and robust monitoring system.

Empirical research from academic studies on distressed projects shows a focus on the technical aspect of risk with a far lower understanding of uncertainty and complexity. This results in difficulty in predicting the future. One of the key obstacles to progression is an innate reluctance to ignore problems on past projects once the project is complete. The area where this reluctance to learn is greatest is around problems with people.

Research shows that all too frequently gut feelings that “things aren’t right” are not captured or are ignored. Thus, giving sway to the inherent prevailing cultural tendency to ignore feelings and place an over optimistic assumption that future developments will somehow turn out better this time around. Research also shows a lack of surveillance and a political mentality that fails to notice that “things didn’t quite fit”. There is clear evidence that had action been taken problems could frequently have been averted.

The reasons for not taking timely corrective action are: failure to address issues of adversarial culture, lack of mechanism, inappropriate optimism, the tendency to shoot the messenger and reluctance because of the apathy of “what’s the point?”

An effective EWS must allow for inclusiveness with easy collection of reliable, uncontaminated and undistorted information for full analysis. There must be leadership buy-in with transparent communication, a desire to know and a willingness and ability to act. It is essential that there is “wisdom of crowds” rather than relying on single and aggregated answers and losing viewpoints. Care must be taken in developing questions, understanding risks and checking assumptions, establishing root causes and deeper issues. This requires deployment of behavioural and interpersonal skills commonly known as “the soft stuff”.


EWS output must be linked to priced risks. Behavioural indicators are driven by good communication. The key question is “What are the tell-tale signs that something is not working?” This relates to specific risks and the ability to get to the good or bad root causes. A simple questionnaire with the right questions gives great intelligence. There needs to be the ability to show the difference when the system is working well and when it is not working well. The system and reporting must give anonymity and allow effective analysis of data in presenting anonymised findings. The objective is straight data giving a platform for discussion that generates a collegiate response to a “common enemy” conveyed through the reports. Such creation moves away from individual reporting and is then seen as a genuine early warning.

The key question is “How can early warnings be utilised better?” There is a fundamental need to get to the point where people want to talk about early warnings. This elicits the questions – are client organisations equipped to talk about early warnings? How is misuse filtered out? How are egos dealt with? How is problem leadership handled? How is stakeholder mapping made more accurate? How is intangible data captured? It is essential to identify quick wins that are interesting to team members.

Research shows the best early warning data is from large numbers. Large projects are political. How can mapping be undertaken more motivationally? The higher up the tree the greater the optimism. EWS work because of large amounts of data.

There is a synergy with the new ISO standards. It is good to get “junk” even it is then filtered out. People are not computers; they are persons with comments who can feed back. The supply chain is aware of risk sooner than the first-tier organisations. The hurdle is that usually there is no way of collecting knowledge.

Early warnings are good for business. They have the potential to reduce contingency. They indicate the way the project team is working. They improve unpredictability Why carry on doing things as they have always been done? To be more effective project teams need to give more importance to the soft issues. When considering problem leadership, it is easy to shoot the messenger as this plays on an inbuilt tendency to do so.

How do you use information to have a different conversation? EWS allows early conversations. As tools, alongside other tools, they allow early conversations. They inform the risk register which tends to focus on hard issues. Rewards for teams managing soft issues are much greater that for hard risks.

To identify hurdles of using EWS it is necessary to enter the world of clients. How are clients understood better? There is a gap in professional training and often the project team doesn’t understand the business case. There is a need to work forwards seamlessness so that the client is part of the team. Many do not understand what collaboration is. Risk cannot just be dumped


Attendees to the Roundtable are invited to continue the discussion on the LinkedIn RADAR group.

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