Snakes and Ladders

Risks come in two flavors: Negative and positive.

We all know about he negative ones (a.k.a. Threats). They’re the ones that threaten to rain on our otherwise sunny parade: A critical project resource falls ill; the new version of a vendor’s module isn’t as compatible as advertised; a firewall refuses to let traffic through during a major infrastructure implementation.

Most of us are also aware of the standard responses to negative risks: Avoid (schedule critical work outside flu season); transfer (engage the vendor’s professional services team to integrate its module); mitigate (run a mock implementation to find surprises ahead of time and reduce the likelihood of the risk occurring); and/or accept (develop a contingency plan and brace for impact).

It’s the positive risks (opportunities), though, we tend to forget about — which is like playing Snakes and Ladders (is it still called that?) without the ladders.

What if in-scope work finishes early? This could translate to a big advantage on a fixed-price engagement with an incentive fee for finishing earlier. What if there’s a possibility of reducing development, integration and on-going maintenance costs by simplifying the design? What if we could create a buffer in the infrastructure implementation schedule as contingency in case implementation doesn’t go as planned?

By investing time up front with the team to plan for positive risks, we can be prepared when opportunity knocks.

You could exploit an opportunity by making sure it happens (use senior resources to complete work earlier without sacrificing quality); enhance it by increasing the chances of it occurring and/or the resulting positive impact (just how much can we simplify the design through peer reviews and refactoring?); and/or share the opportunity with someone so both benefit (share an earlier implementation window with another project in exchange for sharing a key resource from our project). Of course, as with negative risks, we can simply accept the fact that Lady Luck may pass our way, and be prepared if she does by keeping scope/schedule/cost flexible.

The risk planning approaches above can be applied to everyday life: Picking up relatives at the airport? Building a deck? Planning a birthday party? What could go wrong? What could go right?

I applied these techniques when planning a motorcycle ride from Toronto to Alaska and back last summer: I planned for the very real possibility of running out of gas on The Alaska Highway with a combination of avoidance (topping off the fuel tank whenever possible), transferring the risk (CAA, where feasible) and mitigating by carrying extra fuel. On the positive side, I left my schedule loose enough to accept opportunities that might come up — such as a much-needed, off-road riding course during a stopover in Calgary.

If we are focusing on just the negative risks, we are only addressing one side of risk planning. Sure, there are snakes ahead; but let’s be prepared for the ladders as well.