Risk Management Table Stakes

Drew Harteveld
3 min readNov 20, 2017


Pete Conrad ; Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

Four hours of planning, six days of development, Three rounds of testing, two late nights wrestling infrastructure, and you are finally ready to deploy your sprint branch. The external constraints are drawn tight, the stakeholders are holding their breaths, and the team just wants to call this one ‘done’ and move on to other pressing work. That’s when the other shoe drops, and your carefully orchestrated sprint goes ‘kablooey’.

Risk management requires us to rank potential concerns based on likelihood and severity. Since we all operate in a world with meager resources, we are forced to focus our mitigation activities at the top end of that curve.

But my informal analysis of the performance of my own organization over the past several months suggests that as often as 30% of the time, the issues that dragged us down weren’t in that high impact/severity quadrant, at all. Instead, they were caused by risks we hadn’t foreseen, or those that were discerned and ranked of lower priority.

What I mean to say is that Digital product development is, quite simply, risky business.

Based on that assessment, we as product developers need to be hyper-critical about every opening we create for hazard in our builds. Because even the components deemed lowest risk have the potential to grind our entire process to a shuddering halt. Such is the reality in the business of building things that haven’t even been built before.

This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t build. That’s what we get paid for, and for most of us the drive to do so is a call that comes from deep inside. But rather we must recognize that product development is a poker game with high table stakes. For every hand we play, even those that appear to be a breeze due to our skills and expertise, we are at peril of losing the high ante that we must bring to the table.

The lesson here is to be hyper-diligent in deciding what features we will include in our builds. Beware statements like, “…and this one isn’t critical, but it’s a ten-minute job so we’ll toss it in there, as well.” Because that little trinket could very well cause the logjam that keeps the entire build from progressing to Production.

CONSIDER THIS: Pete Conrad was among the most respected astronauts in U.S. history. Navy test pilot, flew the Gemini, walked on the moon, and repaired the Skylab in orbit. A risk-heavy resume, and Conrad made it look like just another day at the office. In July of 1999, while riding with his wife and some friends, Conrad ran his motorcycle off the shoulder and wiped-out. No apparent injuries, so Conrad dusted himself off, picked up his bike, and rode on. Six hours later, he was dead of internal bleeding.

Every time we sit at the table, for every hand we play — even those of us with superior skills and experience — risk losing the entire game. Let’s exhibit maximum diligence to ensure that each of those hands are worthy of the risk.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on November 20, 2017.



Drew Harteveld

BUSINESS PROCESS & OPERATIONAL LEADERSHIP; I organize people, process, and tools to create scalable delivery to the market.