Creative briefs and project plans start off with such hope. Few end with the same optimism. It’s time we asked: Where do things go wrong? We’ve found that at the start of a project, talking about what can go wrong is at least as valuable as talking about what should go right.
Check for Potentially Derailing Risks
Most of the time, teams don’t intentionally ignore where things might go wrong—they just don’t have a process for discussing development risks. As a result, risks are most often recognized once they’re no longer risks but detrimental problems.
The sorts of problems that put teams in survival mode and threaten the success of a project. A technical snag that prevents you from completing your build. Business strategy that doesn’t align with a product launch. A misjudgement of your competition gets in the way of your success in the market. You’ve seen it before, you know the story. What you may not know is how easy it is to avoid.
When evaluating development risk, it is best to think broadly. Here’s a few questions to help you start evaluating risks before they’re a problem:
What is your competition doing and what are they likely to do in the near future?
How likely is your competition to infringe on your effort while you are in development?
How much will customers care about your new product or features?
Will your marketing efforts produce the visibility you need?
Do you have the budget to produce the desired results?
What technologies and platforms are you choosing from?
Are you migrating to new programing languages or platforms?
Are there third-party integrations? With which vendors? Are these true and tested, or new interfaces? Do you expect to have support from these vendors if you need it?
How quickly will you have to scale after you launch? How have you prepared for it?
Are you using open-source code?
Are there unknown technologies or libraries to learn?
Team and scheduling risks
What milestones and deadlines must be met?
What happens if they cannot be met-how big would be the impact on your business?
Who is on the team? Are there people or competencies you need that are not available to you?
Is your team in the same location? Are there barriers to communication?
When you ask these difficult questions, chances are you won’t be satisfied with your answers—and that’s the point. The important step is to get your team talking about the risks and figuring out what they can do to mitigate the impact of the most threatening ones.
Leave No Opinion Unturned
Get every person who will have a direct impact on your work in one room—you need everyone’s participation for this to work. Hand out index cards and a pen to each person in the room. Ask each person to write down every risk he or she is concerned about on a separate card. Gather the cards and categorize them in a few of buckets. You might have risks associated with team resources, project scope, scheduling, technological limitations, APIs and infrastructure. Five or six categories should be enough to get to the big picture.
Together, go through everyone’s concerns, identify duplicates, and prioritize what is really important as a group. Make sure to talk about the recurring things that are on everyone’s mind, but don’t ignore the less commonly raised risks. Something that might only be relevant to a handful of people can still be detrimental to the entire project’s success.
Trust Fresh Eyes to Prioritize
Not all risks were created equal. But when discussing with a team that’s too close to a project, it can be hard to tell the difference between risks. To make matters worse, different teams have different goals.
A knowledgeable moderator—either an outside opinion or someone in your organization who isn’t in the trenches of this project—can help provide perspective and enable teams to align around common goals. Be sure to choose someone who knows about your project but has no agenda to push the discussion one way or another. Her interest should only be to guide the team to figure out what matters most to get the project done successfully.
Translate Risks into Actions-and Unity
You’ve brought minds to the table and moderated an open discussion on risk. As a result, you’ll probably have a few strategies to mitigate major risks and a plan for who’s doing what to keep the project safe. That’s what you set out to do. What might come as more of a surprise, is you’ll likely also leave your risk sessions with a team that is more aligned and confident. Because it’s a team that feels heard. It’s natural for people to feel unified after they’ve been honest and outspoken with one another about the things they are least certain about. In our experience, we’ve found the process of discussing risks has just as much power to galvanize a project as a well thought-out project plan.
We invite you to give it a shot. And send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org — we’d love to hear how it worked for your team.