Focus on individual impacts when communicating risks!

less-is-more-8A recent article by Uzma Khan and Daniella Kupor in Harvard Business Review adds support to the argument for keeping things simple when it comes to communicating risks.

Through a series of experiments focused on positive and negative risks, the authors determined that there is a greater likelihood of individuals making an objective, logical decision when a single significant impact is presented as opposed to when that same impact is presented along with a number of other lower impact outcomes.

In their own words “Thus, adding prizes that make a sweepstakes objectively more valuable ends up decreasing the sweepstakes’ perceived value. Similarly, noting smaller side effects that make the drug objectively more dangerous can in fact make it appear less dangerous by making the larger side effect seem even less likely to happen. This biases us against taking positive risks and avoiding negative ones.”

How might this sort of bias be relevant to our understanding of project risk management?

Recognizing that risk owners are frequently reluctant to commit time or political influence to actively responding to a risk, we might be tempted to try to stack the deck in our favor by communicating multiple potential impacts which might result if the risk gets realized.

By doing this, we might actually diminish the perceived threat or opportunity presented by the risk resulting in risk owners responding in the exact opposite manner than what we had hoped for.

To avoid this, while it is a good idea to capture complete information in our risk registers, when presenting risks to stakeholders, focus on communicate the single impact which presents the greatest threat or opportunity. Then, if you don’t get the buy-in you were hoping for, add weight to your argument by sharing other potential impacts.

As the authors state “…when it comes to helping people evaluate risk, less is more.

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Five expectations for agile tools…

wrong-toolAgile delivery does not mandate the use of software tools, but when scaling agile within large organizations with  greater numbers of stakeholders, geographic distribution of pods, compliance requirements and similar enterprise challenges, tooling can improve efficiency and effectiveness.

There are a few basic expectations which should be met to ensure that your tooling isn’t consistently identified as a blocker during stand-ups and retrospectives.


Agile enables greater levels of transparency and objectivity than traditional delivery but if the underlying tools can’t be trusted to reliably and responsively capture and provide information then pods are likely to experience greater levels of interruptions and requests for status updates.


There is no right answer when it comes to the choice of purchasing an end-to-end tool suite from a single vendor or pursuing a best-of-breed point solution approach. But without seamless integration at the logical connecting points, the risk of data quality or redundant effort increases.

Context-based flexibility

While we encourage team self-organization, in larger environments there is the need to have some standards about where and how critical delivery information elements are captured. Without this, there is likely to be no consistency between product or project-based pods which will make it that much harder to enable a self-serve, lean governance and oversight model.


A good tool facilitates agility by adapting to the working style of the team member instead of requiring them to significantly modify their practices. The greater the delta between tool and team member practices, the greater the need for comprehensive training and for constant reinforcement of expected practices.

Scalable complexity

Minimally sufficient applies to documentation as well as tooling. Teams new to agile should be given a very basic set of features but have the ability to incrementally expand their usage as their maturity increases. However limiting which capabilities are visible to these teams should not prevent more capable pods from advanced usage.

I’m agnostic when it comes to software solutions as the best tool in the hands of a fool will just make them a more dangerous fool but tool capabilities should be commensurate with team needs.

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Fewer choices beats full freedom when introducing self-organization!

fenceA recent Harvard Business Review article provides support for what I’ve witnessed with organizations which are attempting to move their work management model from a highly prescriptive approach to a self-organized one where teams determine the best approach to conduct their work and then refine their practices over time.

The authors of the article assert that where goals are simple, motivation is high and the main challenge is with getting buy-in on a given approach, then a greater degree of flexibility is recommended and that flexibility should be highlighted when communicating with team members. However, where goals become more complex and there is a need for sustained follow-through and not just early buy-in, then leaders should take a more structured approach with defined steps or actions to achieve a better outcome.

I’d written previously about the concerns of team members who are suddenly told to figure out the best way to get their work done instead of being told what to do. In play-it-safe organization cultures where compliance is valued more than creativity, it can take a long while to overcome ingrained behaviors.

Beyond confidence to act, another issues lies with having too many choices. We are very familiar with this challenge when going to an ice cream parlour which has more than a handful of flavors to choose from. Rather than making a quick choice based on our first preference, we might dither irritating the customers who are behind us in line. The same is true when defining work practices. Faced with a myriad of choices, a team might waste significant effort in trying to determine the best possible option. Constraining the choices to a handful, or better yet, providing a reasonable starting point might avoid this issue.

When teams are moving from a traditional to more agile delivery model, developing a goals-driven, guided approach to help them navigate through a short number of decision points and options will give them the confidence that they are working in a sanctioned manner and will help to curb analysis-paralysis. Decision-making scaling frameworks such as Disciplined Agile Delivery can help develop such stepping stones to a fully, flexible agile delivery approach.

While we consider ourselves to be more evolved than animals, we behave in a similar fashion to dogs which have been trained using invisible fences to not stray by receiving mild electric shocks. Once we have been so conditioned, removal of our fences won’t immediately result in us effectively exploring our new found freedoms.


Categories: Agile, Facilitating Organization Change, Project Management | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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