Know Your Enemy: An Introduction to Risk Management, Part 1

Karl Wiegers

Software engineers are eternal optimists. When planning software projects, we usually assume that everything will go exactly as planned. Or, we take the other extreme position: the creative nature of software development means we can never predict what’s going to happen, so what’s the point of making detailed plans? Both of these perspectives can lead to software surprises, when unexpected things happen that throw the project off track. In my experience, software surprises are never good news.

Risk management has become recognized as a best practice in the software industry for reducing the surprise factor. Although we can never predict the future with certainty, we can apply risk management practices to peek over the horizon at the traps that might be looming. Then we can take actions to minimize the likelihood or impact of these potential problems. Risk management means dealing with a concern before it becomes a crisis. This improves the chance of successful project completion and reduces the consequences of those risks that cannot be avoided.

During project initiation take the time to do a first cut at identifying significant risks. It’s possible that the risks will outweigh the potential benefits of the project. More likely, getting an early glimpse of potential pitfalls will help you make more sensible projections of what it will take to execute this project successfully. Build time for risk identification and risk management planning into the early stages of your project. You’ll find that the time you spend assessing and controlling risks will be repaid many times over.

What Is Risk?

A “risk” is a problem that could cause some loss or threaten the success of your project, but which hasn’t happened yet. And you’d like to keep it that way. These potential problems might have an adverse impact on the cost, schedule, or technical success of the project, the quality of your products, or team morale. Risk management is the process of identifying, addressing, and controlling these potential problems before they can do any harm.

Whether we tackle them head-on or keep our heads in the sand, risks have a potentially huge impact on many aspects of our project. The tacit assumption that nothing unexpected will derail the project is simply not realistic. Estimates should incorporate our best judgment about the potentially scary things that could happen on each project, and managers need to respect the assessments we make. Risk management is about discarding the rose-colored glasses and confronting the very real potential of undesirable events conspiring to throw the project off track.

Why Manage Risks Formally?

A formal risk management process provides multiple benefits to both the project team and the development organization as a whole. First, it gives us a structured mechanism to provide visibility into threats to project success. By considering the potential impact of each risk item, we can focus on controlling the most severe risks first. We can marry risk assessment with project estimation to quantify possible schedule slippage if certain risks materialize into problems. This approach helps the project manager generate sensible contingency buffers. Sharing what does and does not work to control risks across multiple projects helps the team avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Without a formal approach, we cannot ensure that our risk management actions will be initiated in a timely fashion, completed as planned, and effective.

Controlling risks has a cost. We must balance this cost against the potential loss we could incur if we don’t address the risk and it does indeed bite us. Suppose we’re concerned about the ability of a subcontractor to deliver an essential component on time. We could engage multiple subcontractors to increase the chance that at least one will come through on schedule. That’s an expensive remedy for a problem that might not even materialize. Is it worth it? It depends on the downside we incur if indeed the subcontractor dependency causes the project to miss its planned ship date. Only you can decide for each individual situation.

Typical Software Risks

The list of evil things that can befall a software project is depressingly long. The enlightened project manager will acquire lists of these risk categories to help the team uncover as many concerns as possible early in the planning process. Potential risks to consider can come from group brainstorming activities or from a risk factor chart accumulated from previous projects. In one of my groups, individual team members came up with descriptions of the risks they perceived, which I edited together and we then reviewed as a team.

Following are several typical risk categories and some specific risks that might threaten your project. Have any of these things have happened to you? If so, add them to your master risk checklist to remind future project managers to consider if it could happen to them, too. There are no magic solutions to any of these risk factors. We need to rely on past experience and a strong knowledge of software engineering and management practices to control those risks that concern us the most.


Some risks arise because of dependencies our project has on outside agencies or factors. We cannot usually control these external dependencies. Mitigation strategies could involve contingency plans to acquire a necessary component from a second source, or working with the source of the dependency to maintain good visibility into status and detect any looming problems. Following are some typical dependency-related risk factors:

  • Customer-furnished items or information.
  • Internal and external subcontractor relationships.
  • Inter-component or inter-group dependencies.
  • Availability of trained and experienced people.
  • Reuse from one project to the next.

Requirements Issues

Many projects face uncertainty and turmoil around the product’s requirements. Some uncertainty is tolerable in the early stages, but the threat increases if such issues remain unresolved as the project progresses. If we don’t control requirements-related risks we might build the wrong product or build the right product badly. Either outcome results in unpleasant surprises and unhappy customers. Watch out for these risk factors:

  • Lack of a clear product vision.
  • Lack of agreement on product requirements.
  • Inadequate customer involvement in the requirements process.
  • Unprioritized requirements.
  • New market with uncertain needs.
  • Rapidly changing requirements.
  • Ineffective requirements change management process.
  • Inadequate impact analysis of requirements changes.

Management Issues

Although management shortcomings affect many projects, don’t be surprised if your risk management plan doesn’t list too many of these. The project manager often leads the risk identification effort, and most people don’t wish to air their own weaknesses (assuming they even recognize them) in public. Nonetheless, issues like those listed here can make it harder for projects to succeed. If you don’t confront such touchy issues, don’t be surprised if they bite you at some point. Defined project tracking processes and clear project roles and responsibilities can address some of these conditions.

  • Inadequate planning and task identification.
  • Inadequate visibility into project status.
  • Unclear project ownership and decision making.
  • Unrealistic commitments made, sometimes for the wrong reasons.
  • Managers or customers with unrealistic expectations.
  • Staff personality conflicts.

Lack of Knowledge

Software technologies change rapidly and it can be difficult to find suitably skilled staff. As a result, our project teams might lack the skills we need. The key is to recognize the risk areas early enough so we can take appropriate preventive actions, such as obtaining training, hiring consultants, and bringing the right people together on the project team. Consider whether the following factors apply to your team:

  • Lack of training.
  • Inadequate understanding of methods, tools, and techniques.
  • Insufficient application domain experience.
  • New technologies or development methods.
  • Ineffective, poorly documented, or ignored processes.
  • Technical approaches that might not work.


Outsourcing development work to another organization, possibly in another country, poses a whole new set of risks. Some of these are attributable to the acquiring organization, others to the supplier, and still others are mutual risks. If you are outsourcing part of your project work, watch out for the following risks:

  • Acquirer’s requirements are vague, ambiguous, incorrect, or incomplete.
  • Acquirer does not provide complete and rapid answers to supplier’s questions or requests for information.
  • Supplier lacks appropriate software development and management processes.
  • Supplier does not deliver components of acceptable quality on contracted schedule.
  • Supplier is acquired by another company, has financial difficulties, or goes out of business.
  • Supplier makes unachievable promises in order to get the contract.
  • Supplier does not provide accurate and timely visibility into actual project status.
  • Disputes arise about scope boundaries based on the contract.
  • Import/export laws or restrictions pose a problem.

The second article in this series will describe the various activities associated with the practice of risk management and recommend the specific bits of information you should record about each risk you identify.

Also read Know Your Enemy: An Introduction to Risk Management, Part 2

Jama Software has partnered with Karl Wiegers to share licensed content from his books and articles on our web site via a series of blog posts, whitepapers and webinars.  Karl Wiegers is an independent consultant and not an employee of Jama.  He can be reached at  Enjoy these free requirements management resources.


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