Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Reality of Risks in Your Projects

I just finished a great book, titled "Waltzing with Bears, Managing Risk on Software Projects" by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Risk is something we all deal with in our day to day lives, and probably don’t deal with enough in our professional work. The authors open with the idea that if a project doesn’t have any risk to it, it’s just not worth taking. This notion is especially applicable to the interactive design field that I work in at Flightpath.

The authors share the analogy presented by risk management expert Bob Charette, who proposes imagining your company and its competitors as a set of down escalators.

“You are obliged to climb up the escalator, which is moving against you. And your competitors are doing the same thing on theirs. The faster their stairs move, the faster everyone has to climb to stay even. If you pause, even for a moment, you begin to fall behind. And, of course, if you pause for too long, you will drop off the bottom, no longer able to compete…

Competitors get to enter their escalators halfway up. Falling behind, then, guarantees that the new competition will enter above you.

At the top of each escalator is a level that will allow you to control the speed of not just your escalator, but of everyone else’s as well. If you’re the first to reach the lever, that shows that you’re a better climber than your competitors. So, you can speed up all the stairs so that you can stay even but your competitors can not.

…This is an era in which risk-taking is rewarded, leaving companies that run away from risk as a plunder to be divided up by the others.”

But taking on the most innovative and thus risky projects is not all about being the sexiest agency out there; risks have to be managed. To take on a risky project without a formal plan in place to manage those risks is taking a major gamble with your project, your stakeholders, and maybe even your career.

The book states that risk management is like project management for adults. Something which adults have that children don’t is a willingness to confront the unpleasantness in life, from the little annoying things to the cataclysmic (examples such as putting a band-aid on a cut to keep it from getting infected, or taking out life or home-owners insurance policy as protection against the bigger challenges). Taking note of bad things that can happen and planning for them accordingly is a mark of maturity.

What can you do to make your project sexy (and of course risky) at the same time? Examples are trying out a new technology, working with a third party application that does some incredibly cool stuff, or doing something that nobody else out there has done before. Then there are the core risks that any project (no matter how un-sexy) can have, the book lists these five core project risks:

- schedule flaw, interruption

- scope creep

- turnover

- specification breakdown

- under performance

To ignore any of these is as disservice to your project team, your stakeholders, and yourself.
But risk discovery and planning can be an unpopular task and can make the risk identifier look like a ‘can’t-do’ person or a whiner. Risk management makes a limited amount of can’t-do thinking okay. It’s better to raise the issues early on and be prepared for them if and when they come, then to ignore them entirely.

So, I’m ready to become more of a can’t-do person, and ready to be more prepared for anything good or bad that will come my way. I hope that you’ll join me, and I’ll see you on the escalator!

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