As a keen kayaker as well as a veteran of many challenging IT programmes it struck me that examining the approach taken to run a wild alpine river might provide some valuable insights to managing risk in IT projects. An alpine river is a living thing, it can and does dramatically change throughout the day. Trees can fall at any time, obstructing the flow creating potential death traps. Seasonal changes and unpredictable weather can turn a fast current into a raging torrent. Glacial melt sends boulders down the rivers forming rapids which did not exist the year before. The rivers themselves are incredibly fast flowing (20+ mph) with granite boulders beneath the surface, a combination which on impact can cause severe injury or in some cases death. The authorities impose regulations as well and you must be off the river by 6 pm or face a fine. Ok so you get the picture, the goal is to get a group of kayakers from point A on this dynamic river to point B within the allowable time frame (and enjoy the experience), seem familiar? Just as in a software project the various stakeholders will all have different skill sets, levels of ability and perspectives of the possible hazards. At the same time to some extent once on the river each person has some personal responsibility in terms of working together as a team and to some extent being autonomously responsible for their own safety. The river guide can be likened to an Enterprise Architect for a software programme determining and demonstrating the appropriate strategy for the situation and communicating it to the rest of the group. A good river guide should ensure that the group has the right equipment before setting off and that there are simple clearly understood procedures in place to communicate any issues. The view seen from the riverbank looks very different once on the river. The effects of the currents become clear and the boulders and spray loom large, holes and drops appear and each kayaker must work hard just to stay afloat. Without guidance some of the group may start to obsess on what is directly in front and fail to holistically consider what else is coming, taking a bad line which makes the next part of the rapids much harder to negotiate. The river guide cannot force individuals to take a particular approach only indicate the route(s) with the highest likelihood of success. Importantly, selection is based on a situational assessment, after all, the river is dynamic and the group’s abilities and confidence will vary. Inevitably one or more kayakers will take a swim irrespective of their experience. Planning for such problems is paramount when evaluating each series of obstacles. The same is true of a project. When major rapids are approached it is prudent to stop, gather the group, deciding support cover and a rescue approach before continuing. This might involve engaging other groups to assist and monitor the situation. A good river guide will facilitate to make sure each member of the group is aware of their role in resolving the situation with mitigation plans in place. Having rescued your fellow kayaker it is of no benefit to berate them for taking the wrong path, hitting a rock or delaying the journey. It is much more productive to ask them if they are OK, if they need any further assistance and to provide some gentle reassurance to restore their confidence. Success on the wild river is a group thing. You either all make it down safely or you have failed. There are many obstacles and unforeseen circumstances waiting, time and resources are limited.

  • Choose a guide who inspires confidence in the stakeholders
  • Work together supporting each other as a group
  • Plan for failures and develop clear mitigation approaches
  • Communicate a clear strategy which allows the route to be adapted for the circumstances.
  • Evaluate the situation at key milestones

The river is wild and dynamic, respect it but like a software project, do not fear it and enjoy the ride.

Article kindly provided by Austen MG Williamson, IT Director/Consultant at Dark Star Associates Ltd.

FURTHER INFORMATION If you would like to discuss the topic of risk management for I.T. projects, please contact Jenrick IT on 01932 245 500.