Planning a new program or improvements to an existing program usually involves setting objectives, planning activities, and other critical tasks.
In the excitement of planning something new, it can seem like a buzzkill to ask, “What could go wrong?”
Several months ago, I started asking this question consistently with staff teams in my division of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. We discussed it when we were planning a kick-off meeting for a district-wide initiative, when we were considering a major program change on a tight time frame, and when we were decided whether or not to cancel programs because of a forecasted snow storm. (Yes, I’m writing this in Michigan!)
I’ve found that staff teams benefit enormously from adding this question to the planning process. Sometimes staff have concerns but don’t know exactly how or when to share them. Other times, “nay-say-ers” derail planning by peppering the conversation with all the detailed problems that could arise. Using a neutral discussion framework that’s built into the planning process provides assurance to all staff that their concerns will be heard — of course, it also helps prevent or minimize future problems.
I like using the Potential Problem Analysis (PPA) framework that’s available from the non-profit TregoEd. (I work in a school district and have been trained in all four of TregoEd’s collaborative decision-making tools.)
Broadly, a PPA helps you prepare for problems that could impact your program’s success.
It’s helpful when you’re implementing a new program, planning for a significant event, or making program changes.
Conducting a PPA is simple. All you need is a facilitator, your planning team, and some chart paper for recording responses.
1. First, ask the team “What could go wrong with our plans?” Ask the team to keep their answers succinct — it’s not necessary to go into every detail or repeat answers.
2. List people’s answers on the chart paper, leaving space between each answer. The facilitator should let staff generate as many as they want, but don’t allow the discussion to get too far out there (i.e. it’s unlikely that aliens will land and disrupt the program).
3. Go back to the top of the list. For each potential problem, ask: “How could we prevent this from happening?” The answers often turn into specific action steps.
4. Return to the top of the list. Ask: “If this [potential problem] happens, what will we do to minimize the negative impact?”
5. If you end up with numerous potential problems, the team can prioritize 3-4 that are most important to prevent. Others can be worked on as time/opportunity permits.
6. For each potential problem on the short list, ask “What action steps will occur, Who will do them, and by When?”
I’ve used this process many times, sometimes as a full-blown process like what is outlined above, and sometimes just talking through the essential questions. The key thing is for the team to know ahead of time that you’re going to have this conversation. This assures everyone (naysayers, too!) that there will be time to consider and plan for potential problems.
Using this simple question has improved program and event quality and decreased stress for staff at my organization. Hint: you can use it when making life decisions as well. Happy problem preventing!
For breakfast, I had an egg, turkey bacon, and cheese sandwich on an English muffin.
Author Profile: @jennabacolor