The reference case for management reserves


By Lynda Bourne on Mosaicproject’s Blog


Risk management and Earned Value practitioners, and a range of standards, advocate the inclusion of contingencies in the project baseline to compensate for defined risk events. The contingency may (should) include an appropriate allowance for variability in the estimates modelled using Monte Carlo or similar; these are the ‘known unknowns’.  They also advocate creating a management reserve that should be held outside of the project baseline, but within the overall budget to protect the performing organisation from the effects of ‘unknown unknowns’.  Following these guidelines, the components of a typical project budget are shown below.


PMBOK® Guide Figure 7-8

The calculations of contingency reserves should be incorporated into an effective estimating process to determine an appropriate cost estimate for the project[1]. The application of appropriate tools and techniques supported by skilled judgement can arrive at a predictable cost estimate which in turn becomes the cost baseline once the project is approved. The included contingencies are held within the project and are accessed by the project management team through normal risk management processes. In summary, good cost estimating[2] is a well understood (if not always well executed) practice, that combines art and science, and includes the calculation of appropriate contingencies. Setting an appropriate management reserve is an altogether different problem.

Setting a realistic management reserve

Management reserves are an amount of money held outside of the project baseline to ‘protect the performing organisation’ against unexpected cost overruns. The reserves should be designed to compensate for two primary factors.  The first are genuine ‘black swans’ the other is estimating errors (including underestimating the levels of contingency needed).

The definition of a ‘black swan’ event is a significant unpredicted and unpredictable event[3].  In his book of the same name, N.N. Taleb defines ‘Black Swans’ as having three distinct characteristics: they are unexpected and unpredictable outliers, they have extreme impacts, and they appear obvious after they have happened. The primary defence against ‘black swans’ is organisational resilience rather than budget allowances but there is nothing wrong with including an allowance for these impacts.

Estimating errors leading to a low-cost baseline, on the other hand, are both normal and predictable; there are several different drivers for this phenomenon most innate to the human condition. The factors leading to the routine underestimating of costs and delivery times, and the over estimating of benefits to be realised, can be explained in terms of optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation.  The resulting inaccurate estimates of project costs, benefits, and other impacts are major source of uncertainty in project management – the occurrence is predictable and normal, the degree of error is the unknown variable leading to risk.

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