How risk management affects agile approaches

As promised, I ordered a copy of Michael Power‘s new book, Organised Uncertainty. And I’ve given it my first riffle-through, preparing my plan of attack for the next wave through the book. It’s a fascinating read for people of my persuasion. [If you don’t know what my persuasion is, then please take a look at The Kernel For This Blog and About This Blog, both of which should be accessible at the top of this page, depending on how you got here.]

Power quotes Douglas and Wildawsky as saying in 1982:

Can we know the risks we face, now or in the future? No, we cannot: but yes, we must act as if we do.

Later on, Power states ….”More importantly for the purposes of this book, the emphasis of communication was increasingly on the process of risk management rather than on its content.”

I came across early vestiges of this, of the impact of reputational and similar risks on organisations and their management structures, very early on in my project management career. [And I guess I got so frustrated by what I saw that it was only natural that I found my way to The Audit Explosion, and much later on to The Risk Management of Everything. It was only a matter of time before I took steps to meet Professor Power; we had lunch sometime in 2004, and now, having read his latest book at least one, I realise it is time to meet him again.]

Until I read Organized Uncertainty, I never really made the connection between this overgrowth of risk management and the distrust of agile management techniques. I never really understood the Emperor’s-New-Clothes-Syndrome. Now, slowly, light is beginning to dawn, to leach into my landscape.

Once you switch focus from content to process, agile techniques don’t stand a chance. Agile in a “content” perspective leads to the Baconian “A man that starts with doubts shall end in certainties”; agile in a “process” perspective leads to the other Baconian statement “A man that starts with certainties shall end in doubts”. These two positions are polar opposites.

As Douglas and Wildawsky stated, people act as if they know the risks they face despite not knowing them; they then disparage people who act to discover and potentially mitigate hitherto unknown risks. The Emperor’s New Clothes.

More later.

12 thoughts on “How risk management affects agile approaches”

  1. This seems similar to how a lot of businesses approached quality management – it didn’t matter if your ISO9000 documentation actually helped produce a better widget – what mattered was that you followed the documented steps and achieved certification.

  2. As I sit here struggling with how to do a cost benefit analysis on a risk management system (which we are building using agile methods) I had to grin when I read your post. I know my CBA will be total BS and that my project managers are frustrated with my reluctance to take their waterfall style project plan serious. Being an agile risk manager is a bit like being green… it ain’t easy.

  3. So how does one who works for a process (I would call it – fear) driven entity – move forward when agile practices mandate taking risks that can or cannot be proven or quantified.

  4. Quality standards have a lot of the same issues. We’ve just been through our own three-yearly renewal of our organisation’s sector-specific quality mark and the process is quite explicitly about documenting what you do and showing you do what you document – what it actually is that you do is strictly secondary – the paper is trail is all that matters.

  5. This was the start of my journey into the land of Real Options. Kevin Tate of Alias Software (SGI) showed a slide at ADC2003 in Salt Lake City. The slide showed the risk profile of a Waterfall and an Agile software development.

    It was an obvious risk arbitrage. Waterfall is riskier but people believe it to be safer (because IT have told them so for years). Agile is safer but names like eXtreme Programming put off the risk averse. eXtreme makes people think of eXtreme sports.

    I mentioned this to a colleague (The head of credit risk). He said “Of course eXtreme sportsmen understand risk better. If they did not, they would be dead”.

    The first steps on the path to Real Options.

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