Sure, People are Dying, But is that REALLY a Risk?
I marvel at the million-and-one risks that seem to crop up every day, and the million-and-two people who are willing to ignore them.
Risk is any uncertain event that may happen to cause a negative impact to our objective.
Let’s talk about that first.
What do you really want? That’s a question for the ages. From the time our Mom asked us for our Christmas wish list to the time the salesperson met with our client, the question has been the same. What do you really want? Unfortunately, most of our requirements are pretty non-specific. We have a nasty habit of setting objectives that are about as nebulous as they can be.
For some reason, vendors and customers alike have the weird notion that being vague about our objectives is a good thing. And that’s REALLY a risk. We may have non-specific requirements, leading to customer dissatisfaction. But what if the very narrow, specific, requirements turn out to be wrong?
That’s actually good news. At least we then know what the customer doesn’t want. We get to be managers of an issue, rather than a risk. Issues, for the uninitiated, are risks realized. They are no longer uncertain. We’re sure we’re wrong!
Anyone who has had any unresolved medical concern knows the angst associated with the unknown. Our objective? We want to feel better. But that’s a vague, nebulous statement. It’s not clear what “feeling better” actually looks like. Putting up with some ongoing physical ailment is unpleasant, but in some cases, we don’t really want to pin down that our objective is to get a clear diagnosis and get on with the treatment. Getting the word that you have incurable cancer may sound like a miserable outcome. But it’s also the first step toward getting treatment to make you overcome whatever symptoms are making you miserable today. The objective is not just to feel better. The objective is to minimize the cause of whatever’s making you ill, allowing you to feel better.
Any time we can sit down with our team, with skilled professionals, and with the customer, there’s a chance to fine-tune the objective. When the objective is clear, then we can identify the risks that stand as impediments between us and a positive outcome
Let’s talk about those impediments. They do this in the Agile culture every day. One of the three questions in Scrum-based Agile is What’s standing in your way? That’s a great question. The answers force the team to look into a crystal ball and try to make predictions about the darkness and evil that stands between us and the objective.
When you hop in your car, you have an objective. It’s your destination. What could possibly go wrong? What’s standing in your way?
Weather! Deer! Engine failure!
What’s amazing is that we accept those one- and two-word answers as risks. They’re not. They are sources of risk, but they’re not risks by themselves. For years, I have advocated that risk be stated as full sentences. It’s the easiest, quickest way to improve risk practice in an organization. All the manager needs to do is to get people to state the thing that may happen and the impact it may cause.
It may snow, rendering the road impassible.
I may hit a deer, damaging my car.
My engine could die, leaving me stranded at the side of the road.
Those are much more powerful risk statements, because they give us the answer to the eternal question:
Consider that if we had stuck with one-word risk answers, the team might have had their own perspective on each of the risks. While we intended the risks above, they may have been pondering the risks below:
It may snow, causing my vehicle to careen out of control, killing me.
I may hit a deer, killing me.
My engine could die, causing the car to explode with me in it.
Without the full-sentence statement (including impact), the risk is never really clear. The degree of the impediment to our objectives is unclear. And the degree of worry that we should have related to the risk is completely unclear. Open the door for people to pick their own worries, and they’ll do so. And in many instances, their worries will be far more dispiriting than the risks we wanted them to worry about.
What’s Really a Risk?
When we remove free-floating anxiety from the risk equation (with clear risk statements), we open the door for an intelligent conversation. Take a cancer diagnosis. If I tell you that you have incurable cancer, your mind goes to some pretty dark places. When you are told that you have incurable cancer that can be treated, extending your life expectancy to 10-15 years, you have hope!
For the driving example, if I leave you in the snowy mountains wondering about your risks, you might get nervous. When I tell you that the worst-case realistic scenario is that you may whack a deer, causing damage to your car, you take solace in the fact that you’ll likely live to tell the tale.
So, Let’s Talk About It
Opening up the conversations on risks provides comfort on all sides. If we know the potential impact to our objectives, we can then discuss and debate which outcomes are worth the effort and which aren’t. The Australians had the “deer problem” with kangaroos. They invented the “roo bar” (tubular steel frames that go across the front of the vehicle, minimizing physical damage to the vehicle). They knew a specific impediment to their outcome and they came up with a specific solution.
When I was diagnosed with liver cancer (after losing about 50 pounds in less than a month), I got the narrow specifics on the risks, which opened the door for mitigation. It was terrifying at first, but once I understood that I could potentially survive another 15 years, it didn’t seem quite as imminent or horrible. (Current prognosis still stands at about 15 years to go…) Knowledge is power when it comes to risk, but Knowledge is Power—Shared®. We only get anywhere with risk when we have the full conversation. It’s a conversation most of us never want to have, but when we have it openly and honestly, we can get down to specifics. Specifics matter. And they open the door for a less threatening conversation on risk. Let’s start talking.
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