What could be a more effective risk management practice than wearing a seat belt when driving? Surely that sort of improvement benefits everyone? Actually, economists have shown that it’s not that simple and there are lessons for project managers from this lesson too.
If you engage in risk management, as all project managers do, then be aware of the work of the Chicago economist Sam Peltzman.
What Peltzman identified is that behavior can change substantially in response to risk management policies. For example in the case of seat belts, people tend to drive faster and have more collisions when they use seat belts because of the sense of security it gives them. This is not to say that seat belts are ineffective, it seems that traffic safety overall (especially in terms of road deaths) has improved as a result of them, but not as much as you would have expected, because of this behavioral offset.
And more omniously, though drivers are safer from seat belts, cyclists and pedestrians are more at risk with seat belts because drivers tend to drive faster and those outside the car don’t have any offsetting protection.
Similar studies have shown the same phenomena in NASCAR racing, when safety improves drivers then notch up the risks they are willing to take, offsetting some of the benefit.
So the question for the project manager is are your risk management policies changing behavior? This is not to say you shouldn’t bother with risk management, just as with seat belts the overall benefit is likely to be positive, but pay attention to how behavior is changing as a result of the changes you implement. Are people less cautious knowing there is a more robust monitoring process in place for their projects? Are team members less focused on escalating problems knowing that someone else is watching out for them?
The lessons from other areas such these unintended consequences may be more important than you may initially suspect.