Contingencies in Project Management: How to Identify and Deal with “What-If” Scenarios

A group of businesspeople managing a project

Before embarking on any project, regardless of size, one of the most important tasks is to identify and plan for potential scenarios that may damage its progress. These “what-if” scenarios could constitute virtually anything, and it is this ambiguity that makes planning for them so important. There will undoubtedly be some problems that you cannot foresee, but making sure you identify and plan for those you can be help ensure better outcomes for your project. Additionally, having the skills to respond appropriately and proactively to known problems will also mean that should an unforeseen event occur, you’ll feel more capable of dealing with those too.

There are typically two areas of focus when it comes to “what-if” situations; identifying them and dealing with them, below we explore what you can do at each of these stages.


  • Get input from relevant people – consider different angles
    The most important thing to be aware of when trying to identify “what-if” situations is that no one person will be able to foresee everything, and it is therefore vital that all members of the project team, relevant stakeholders and even the customer if appropriate, is consulted on the potential issues that could occur. Making sure you consider unexpected events from every possible angle is the most reliable way to ensure that a comprehensive plan can be created.

  • Use previous experience – especially from similar projects
    The situations you have encountered in the past can be a great prompt for potential areas of concern in the present. While all projects are unique, there will undoubtedly be some overlap, and if a past project experienced a certain issue, then it is wise to consider the whether your current project may face similar issues. This may or may not happen, but using the information you have gathered via prior experiences is a great way to guide your risk planning. That being said, it is important you don’t only consider it from this perspective, also be mindful of how this project is different to those you’ve worked on in the past and what unique issues may arise as a result.
  • Try not to assume – fact check whatever you can
    One of the most dangerous things anyone in a project team can do is make assumptions, this can lead to delays, frustration and potential non-completion. So when you are working to identify any possible “what-if” situations, make sure you fact-check wherever you can, especially if the potential situations rely on or involve other people. Working to get as much clarity as you can around potential problems is the most effective way to ensure you can develop a workable action plan in the event they occur.
  • Break it down into categories
    Due to the overwhelming amount of “what-if” scenarios that could arise, it may be useful to decide on some broad categories to help define them more accurately. These may include things like project scope, budget, people, equipment, time, and customer, but depending on the nature of the project there may be many more. The purpose of this is to help focus the team’s thoughts and help identify all of the possible risks associated with a certain category. It is also sensible to consider all potential scenarios no matter how unlikely they may be as this will ensure a documented plan of action can be created and people will feel more confident about how to respond to any situation should it arise.

Dealing with them

  • Allocate extra (just in case) time
    Whatever eventuality happens to occur it is likely to take considerable time to manage, so the best strategy to ensure you have an adequate opportunity to deal with it effectively is to factor in some “what-if” time into the project. Estimating the duration of this will depend on the risks you have identified and their potential impact on the project but by allowing yourself that extra leeway it will mean any issues that do arise hopefully won’t derail your plans completely, and even better, if nothing does occur your project should be completed well ahead of time.

  • Plan for the known potential issues
    Where you know what potential issues are, especially if there is a high chance they will occur, make sure you have a contingency plan in place to deal with it, and even more important, that everyone else in the team knows what it is too. The exact plan you design will depend on the issues you foresee, but having something in place will limit the negative impact of any unexpected events that happen.
  • Isolate what you can
    If an undesired problem does arise then to ensure it doesn’t cause significant delays or cause an entire shut-down of a project, it is important to isolate the problem as best you can, to allow other areas of the project to progress. There is sometimes a gut reaction to problems with the assumption that if one area is affected, then the entire project will be impacted, but in most cases this isn’t actually true, and things can continue to move forward if a proactive approach can be taken. Resolving the issue may require some creative problem solving, and you need to be wary of how development of one area may impact or be impacted by other areas, but by making finding ways to progress the project in other ways, it will ensure that any “what-if” scenarios don’t cause total chaos.
  • Amend the scope
    If you encounter a “what-if” scenario that does cause significant complications to your project, another approach to dealing with it may be to change to scope of the project in response. In most cases this will be a last resort as amending scope can be a very frustrating, costly and time-consuming process, but in some instances the impact of the challenge may be so great you have no other choice. In this event careful planning will be needed, involving key stakeholders and the customer, to ensure any amendments are feasible and that it will still enable to objective of the project to be met or to agree on a new objective if the situation calls for it.

Your response to “what-if” events can have a lasting impact on the future of a project; being able to manage them competently and efficiently will empower your team, reduce stakeholder conflict and help ensure outcomes can be met. All of these factors are absolutely vital in the overall success of a project, so having the skills and confidence to plan for risks effectively is undoubtedly one of the most important skills any project team member can have.