Danger ahead

THE AGILE | Project Manager

Agile approaches implicitly address the most common project risks.


A couple of years ago, I began a training program to run my first marathon with dreams of crossing the finish line. But when preparing for any athletic endeavor, there's always the risk of injury.

Midway through the training program, I developed painful shin splints. My doctor prescribed rest for two weeks, but a half-month later, the pain persisted. She recommended I increase my rest to two months.

Because I was training in weekly increments, this delay didn't set me back permanently. It allowed me to learn of the problem early and adapt my goal to run a half-marathon. Had I pushed myself without rest, I could have seriously damaged my legs. But delivering incrementally saved my long-term marathon project.

Agile approaches and techniques work similarly when it comes to risk. By their very nature, they reduce both the impact and likelihood of common project risks.

Risk: Vague requirements. Project requirements are almost always incomplete, unclear or simply out of date.

Solution: Techniques such as voice of the customer, progressive elaboration and dynamic change control are baked directly into most agile approaches to address this issue. Each requires the project team to create at least one meeting with the customer/product owner to develop a very clear, high-level, customer-driven goal. Only then can we dig into details of what must be delivered next to best progress toward that goal. Collectively, these techniques minimize the risk that something is missed or that the wrong thing gets delivered.

Risk: Incompatible outputs. Many times, our project deliverables simply don't work well together. In the pursuit of efficiencies, we assign project components to specialized teams, and then get stung trying to stitch them together at the last minute.

Solution: To combat this, agile approaches emphasize slicing a project into small increments of working product. The sooner we integrate everything into a customer-facing deliverable, the sooner we will discover false assumptions, bad specifications or anything else that needs to be fixed to deliver an acceptable outcome.

Risk: Rotating team members. Every project manager knows the pain of having team members pulled off their projects onto other assignments. Or perhaps in need of a specialized skill, they have to look outside the project team for help. The search eats up valuable time.

Solution: Agile approaches start with cross-disciplinary “tiger teams,” made up of members with the skills needed to get tasks done without delays or interruptions. If a tester has a compliance question, for example, there will always be a compliance person at the ready to provide an answer. Moreover, the more stable your team roster, the more stable your project schedule.

Risk: Poor communication. Project charters and other documents are vital, but they do not capture nuance and too much is left to interpretation.

Solution: Agile approaches demand closer proximity of all project stakeholders, from finance directors to team members. All are invited to daily stand-ups, open review and planning meetings. More open and frequent communication forces more alignment. You may expose more disagreements, but at least they get resolved sooner.

Risk Management in an Agile World

Agile is often derided for its conspicuous lack of formal risk management. But agilists recognize that risk management comes in two distinct flavors and speak to both in different ways.

Implicit risk management. Agile practitioners have not emphasized risk management because they don't need to. It's baked into the frameworks. From bad requirements to poor communication, we already know what kills projects. Frameworks such as Scrum are specifically engineered to use techniques that reduce the bad and increase the good. This intentional pattern is what drives increased success rates of agile projects.

Explicit risk management. Using frameworks and tools based on common risks is a good start, but it's only the foundation. That's why I'm proud to have the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)® credential. This formal agile program promotes explicit agile risk management with techniques such as the risk burn-down chart or the risk-adjusted backlog. These tools can provide the added rigor needed to navigate the threats and opportunities unique to a given project.

Risk: Poor governance. Once, with a month to go on a yearlong project, I was assured by the project manager that we were 90 percent complete and on schedule. But when the delivery date came, nothing worked, and we suffered major operational impacts. As is often the case, it wasn't the quality issue that hurt us. It was not knowing about problems soon enough to adapt.

Solution: Stories like this inspire agilists to talk about “transparency,” a technique that requires all stakeholders, including decision-makers, to attend frequent demonstrations of the working product. It shows everyone where the team's progress stands—not just in theory, but in real life. The participation of decision-makers increases accountability, and our frequent and candid warnings limit the risk of surprise problems.

By now, I hope you see the pattern. Agile approaches adopt a set of practices that implicitly addresses the most common project risks. Certainly, adding more explicit risk processes can be helpful. But I have found these methods get me started on the right foot to go the distance. PM


Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, is a founder of the PMI Agile Community of Practice and participated on the core team of Software Extension to the PMBOK® Guide Fifth Edition. He can be reached at [email protected].

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