Decision Let-down

Leadership must recognize that momentum is lost when decisions are anti-climactic.  As a leader, it is tempting to focus on the decisions as your primary responsibility – but that is only half of the problem.  When decisions are not incisive, are not positive, result in no obvious actions or next steps – our responsibility is to keep the team from getting demotivated, confused, or de-focused.  Continue Reading

The Slide

Did ya ever work on a project that seemed like the schedule was too aggressive? Where the team had to constantly fight to stay on schedule, and to keep moving forward? Where things maybe got behind and we piled more resources on to catch up? Where things felt bad, but we kept on fighting until…


…it was too late. Like in baseball, when the only way get on base is to slide in? Like in football, when you just need that one more yard, and you then turn it over?

The thing is, software development isn’t a sport. We don’t have an opposing team. We don’t have a team owner or coach. Software development is a business activity. It is an activity of manufacturing, of logistics, of research and development and of analysis.

The enemy is risk. In order to defeat risk, we have to understand where risk comes from, and we have to understand how to retire it. Risk is tricky because it costs you little (or nothing) to carry it, but much to quantify, even more to retire it, and potentially even more when it is realized.Continue Reading

Starting Green

One of the most useless project management conventions I have ever worked with is the status stoplight or RAG status. From a simplicity perspective, it is designed to convey a general state of the project. Green means things are “OK”. Amber means things aren’t that OK. Red means things are not OK at all. The convention is to get the attention of stakeholders when the status changes from green to amber to red. It is a beacon, or warning signal that something needs to change.


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Fail Fast Furiously

The other day, I read a tweet by @gnat (nat torkington), saying that fail fast as a mantra was misleading – because the objective was to learn, not to fail.


Actually when I exhort people to fail fast, the objective is to retire a risk. Sure, learning is important, but what is really important to the delivery of software is retiring risk. Either we know something will work, or we know it won’t work. Risk retired, the rest is just work.

What is necessary to fail is a set of success criteria. If it doesn’t meet all the criteria (at the same time), it fails. So when you send your team down the path of a POC or a Spike – with the exhortation to “fail fast”, you also need to provide them with some hard criteria to compare their results against. These criteria should give you an ability to predict whether your POC or Spike has really retired the risk, or whether you are simply kicking the can.


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Agile Risk Mitigation

Before we talk about whether agile practices provide any benefits toward risk mitigation or risk reduction, we really need to talk about the nature of risk in a software development project or process.

In any discussion of risks, there are any number of attritbutes by which we can classify or characterize risks, but in order to discuss mitigation, comparing two methodologies side by side, it makes sense to me to use the source or cause of the risk as the primary taxonomy. So I will describe these risk sources, and how agile might offer some advantage in dealing with risk.

risk mitigation

Risk Source – Customer: Risks emanating from the customer inevtably involve scope, schedule and money. Sometimes it is that scope cannot be succinctly defined, or understood (requirements), sometimes it is that the buiness need changes more rapidly than expected due to external factors. Sometimes it is simply that the customer for whatever reason cannot make decisions.

Risk Source – Project team: Risks emanating from the project team inevitably involve productivity, skill, or leadership.

Risk Source – Organization: Risk emanating from the company or department producing the software, involve policy, resource management, coordination.

Risk Source – Technology/Environmental: Risk emanating from technical infrastructure or software development technology platform.

I have listed these in the order of frequency or likelihood based purely on my own experience. You can argue with me on the customer risk being the most frequent or likely, and that all scope, schedule and financial risk emanate from the customer, but it’s their scope, it’s their schedule, and it’s their money, and all decisions around those three elements are made by the customer.

So how do agile practices help mitigate risk emanating from the customer?


  • By producing working software as early as possible, effectively shortening the feedback and delivery cycles, agile practices actually retire risk of unknown. When you produce working software capabilities that is ready to deploy, any risk of unknown that was attached to those capabilities is effectively retired. This includes risk of incomplete or incorrect requirements, or inaccurate translation between business and technical abstractions.
  • By assuming a model that inherently drives down the cost of deferred decisions by eliminating pre-work, the risks of changes to schedule or budget emanating from the customers funding model or the customers market strategy are mitigated.
  • By developing a model with a higher frequency of customer interaction, and reducing the scope (size and impact) of customer decisions (one milestone at a time) risks emanating from the customers own organizational decision making process, or internal committment model are mitigated.
  • By establishing a value scoping paradigm with finer granularity, agile practices can reduce the scope of customer decisions, and the minimum time span of value delivery. More granular deliverables (stories?), make it easier for the customer to prioritize and sequence, ensuring that key value propositions are delivered as early as possible. Customers have a increased ability to discriminate essential scope from non-essential (apple polishing or lily guilding) scope, and so can defer the non-essential, until all of the essential scope is accepted.

Likewise, how do agile practices help mitigate risk emanating from the project team?


  • By increasing the frequency of measurement (of productivity), agile practices give more timely feedback on the productivity from each skill to management, enabling adjustments as early as possible, rather than later.
  • By establishing a regular cycle during the project of milestone retrospectives, the project team can adapt and adjust without the permission or engagement of outside leadership.

And for risks emanating from the delivery organization?


  • By establishing cross-functional teams, and empowering the team to self-adjust their process, agile practices reduce policy oriented risks, as separate teams forming separate (and un-aligned) policies do not inherently collaborate or coordinate.
  • By increasing the frequency of measurement, feedback to resource management is actionable sooner, mitigating risk emanating from resource management.
  • Agile practices do not appear to provide distinct advantage in coordinating across delivery teams, or with service providers or vendors. But it also does not appear to disadvantage the team in any material way.

Finally, for risks emanating from the technical infrastructure or development platform?


  • Agile practices do not appear to provide distinct advantage in dealing with hardware or software environments or development tools. But it also does not appear to disadvantage the team in any material way.

While I am not suggesting that traditional software development life cycle does not have risk management capabilities, only that they are different, and especially, do not retire risk as early. The basis of the traditional lifecycle is that risk of unknown is mitigated by doing ALL of the analysis and ALL of the design up front, in an effort to optimize the development, which is thought to be the risky portion. I think that modern software tools, paradigms and techniques have made the development less risky, which means that the risk is more likely that the requirements that we captured change over time, or simply were inadequate, and that we cannot retire that risk, until we put software capabilites in front of users. That is where agile practices take us – in exactly that way.