How to Stop Your Plans from Failing

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When you first make a plan, you ‘plan for success’ — that is, you assume that everything will go right and the outcomes will be just as expected. Of course, the real world has a habit of challenging the best-laid of plans, and whatever could go wrong often does — at the worst possible time. It is for this reason that contingency planning should be an element of every plan.

A contingency is an event which may or may not occur. Contingency plans are alternative courses of action that can be taken if the planned actions are disrupted or become inappropriate.

Identifying the contingencies

Perhaps, the hardest part of contingency planning is identifying what could go wrong. Failure to identify potential problems is often a failure of imagination. Experience will tell you the kind of things that could go wrong and disasters sometimes give you warnings in the form of ‘close shaves’.

When you have identified as many potential problems as you can through experience and intuition, look at each planned activity in turn and identify what would be the effect if the activity:

It is unlikely that you will identify all possible failures, but the exercise is still worth doing because if you have plans in place to deal with the problems you can imagine, you will have more time to deal with those you didn’t. In fact, it’s a good idea to put a little extra time and resources into the project to deal with these unexpected contingencies.

Analysing the contingencies

Analysing the contingencies is also called risk assessment. The action you would take for a particular contingency will depend on two factors:

For example, if there is a negligible chance that the problem will occur (low probability) and the consequence would be very small (low impact) then it would be safe to ignore this particular problem and take no action.


For each of the potential failures, you should establish the probability of occurrence. In other words, what is the chance of the unwanted event happening? When throwing dice there is a one-in-six chance for throwing a six. Probabilities are often expressed as a decimal so a one-in-six chance would be a 0.167 probability. If an event is certain to occur, it has a probability of 1. If the event is an impossibility, it has a probability of 0.

When carrying out simple risk assessments, rather than using such precise figures it is usually sufficient to rate the probability of the event happening as ‘H’ high, ‘M’ medium or ‘L’ low:

HThe event is very likely to occur
MThe event will probably occur
LIt is unlikely that the event will occur


Impact considers the seriousness of what would happen should the failure occur. For example, if a nuclear power plant were to leak radioactive material the consequence or impact would be extremely high. As with the probability assessment, it is usual to use ‘H’, ‘M’ or ‘L’ with impact:

HThe event would cause the project to fail. A health, safety or security risk.
MThe event would cause a delay or a reduction in the project's quality.
LThe event would have minimal impact.

Action planning

There are two main categories of action you can take when planning for contingency:


This will reduce the probability of the event occurring and consists of actions inserted into the original plan before the activity where the unwanted event might occur. For example, if there is a possibility that you might run out of fuel, you could plan to carry a spare can of fuel.


Contingency actions are those you plan to take if unwanted events do occur. They are used when it is not possible to prevent the occurrence and are actions that are designed to either correct the problem or reduce the damage. As well as taking some predefined action (sometimes known as 'Plan B'), you can also allocate additional time or resources. Events which trigger the actions, and the contingency actions themselves, should be included in the original plan.

Now you are in a position to identify the critical points in the plan - usually events which have a high probability or impact.

For each of the critical points, list the potential problems and rate them for probability and impact.

Critical PointsPotential ProblemsProbImpPreventive ActionContingent Action

Whether you take any action, and the type of action you take, will depend on your assessment of these ratings. There is no substitute for good judgement of a particular situation, but the following guidelines may help:


  1. Identify the critical parts of the plan, particularly regarding the availability of essential resources such as key items of information or specialist team members.

  2. Identify the risks which could affect the plan at each critical point.

  3. Rate each in terms of probability of occurrence and impact of the resulting effect ('H' for high, 'L' for low).

  4. Focus on the most important risks (i.e. those with high probability and high impact) and specify what actions to take to prevent their occurrence. Build these actions into your plan.

  5. Identify what corrective or minimizing action could be taken if, despite your preventing action, it were to occur.

  6. Note the monitoring method you will use the 'trigger' the actions within your contingency plan. Finally, build the monitoring action into your plan.

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