Third Question Risk Management – Tying Risk into Agile

As a risk manager, I love the morning scrum of Agile management practices.  In particular, I love the third question.  For those of you who don’t do Agile, there are supposed to be three questions asked of every team member at a morning meeting (called a scrum).

What did you do yesterday?

What are you doing today?

What’s standing in your way?

It’s the third question that gets to the heart of risk management, and something that we should be leveraging big-time if we’re going to be serious about risk management practice.  Specifically, we need to ensure that we have a common understanding about how we’re using that information appropriately.

Recently, I had an Agile practitioner remark that the morning scrums were getting frustrating for her.  She kept asking the three questions, and for the second and third questions, she found she was getting the same answers, over and over again.  Little progress was being made, and the same problems were driving that lack of progress.

The role of the project manager in an Agile environment is not just to be a sounding board, I explained.  The role is to examine the barriers to progress and to look at them as risks!  How can they be minimized, mitigated and dealt with to ensure that there is progress in the right direction.  When Agile managers ask the third question, it should become the clarion call for what they’re supposed to manage next!

What’s standing in your way?

After that question is answered, the already robust risk management effort (which should have been done at the beginning of the effort and at regular intervals) should kick back into gear, investigating the causes of the barriers, the potential for repeating barriers, and the solutions. 

The daily scrum also presents an opportunity to build an archive of information regarding what are the organization’s (or at least the project’s) systemic concerns.  If it’s happened before, particularly more than once, it will likely happen again. 

The third question answers can even afford us the ability to predict probability of repeat offenders.  Heard a barrier once?  It’s a low probability.  Heard it twice or three times?  It’s moderate.  Heard the same barrier four or more times?  It’s a high probability. 

The intriguing aspect of traditional risk management is that we need to assess probability and impact.  In Agile, we are likely hitting both of those buttons with the same finger.  Heard a barrier once?  It’s a low impact.  Heard it twice or three times?  It’s moderate.  Heard the same barrier four or more times?  It’s a high impact.    

It also helps drive us toward better risk responses.  Heard a barrier once?  We’ll passively accept it.  No action required.  Just documentation.  Heard it twice or three times?  It’s on to active acceptance, where we have a plan for dealing with it if it comes to pass again.  Heard the same barrier four or more times?  Mitigation (by reducing the probability and/or impact) or transference (dumping it on someone else) comes into play. 

What’s amazing is that Agile, for all of its charts and graphs and consistency, doesn’t seem to have a consistent approach to risk management as it relates to the “third question” answers.  And yet those answers are the most fertile ground for gathering risk data that any project manager could possibly imagine. 

As project managers, we desperately need to ensure that risk management doesn’t get short shrift as management practices evolve.  Instead, we need to actively examine how the latest and greatest management practices can truly be the latest and greatest risk management practices.  In cases like Agile, it’s a relatively simple evolution, and one that has the potential to bear an extraordinary amount of fruit.

Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP is the founder of Pritchard Management Associates in Frederick Maryland.  His training and consulting practice takes him around the world engaging audiences in the powerful message that risk management can be a positive, growing and fun experience.  He is the author of seven texts in project management, the U.S. Correspondent for Project Manager Today (UK) and a member of the board of directors of  He co-produced the nine-CD audio set The Portable PMP Prep: Conversations on Passing the PMP Exam, and co-created the Windows platform apps PMP4U and RMP4U, as well as, a practice test website.   

Heard a barrier once?  It’s a low probability.  Heard it twice or three times?  It’s moderate.  Heard the same barrier four or more times?  It’s a high probability.