Risk-First Analysis

The previous article, Fixing Scrum, examined Scrum’s idea of “Sprints” and concluded:

  • The main purpose of a Sprint is to ensure there is a feedback loop. Every two weeks (or however long the Sprint is) we have a Sprint Review, and review the code that has been completed during the Sprint. In Risk-First parlance, we call this Meeting Reality. It is the process of testing your ideas against reality to make sure they stand up.

  • This Sprint Review is performed by the whole team. All the code must be completed by the end of the sprint in order that it can be reviewed. This introduces an artificial deadline to be met.

  • In order to meet this deadline (and because estimating is so hard) the Sprint must be planned carefully by the whole team, in a session of Planning Poker.

Scrum: Consequences Of Time-Boxing

The diagram above shows this behaviour in the form of a Risk-First Diagram.

Estimating Is A Poor Tool

Seen like this, Planning Poker is a tool to avoid the Coordination Risk problem of everyone needing to complete their work for the end of the Sprint. But estimating is really hard: In this series so far we’ve looked at three different ways in which software estimation deviates from the straightforward extrapolation (a.k.a, Fill-The-Bucket) we learnt about in maths classes at school:

  • Kitchen Cabinet: In this domain, there is hidden work. We don’t know how much there might be. If we can break down tasks into smaller units, then by the law of averages and the central limit theorem, we can apply some statistics to figure out when we might finish.
  • Journeys: In this domain, work is heterogeneous and interconnected. Different parts depend on each other, and a failure in one part might mean going back to the drawing board entirely. The way to estimate in this domain is to know the landscape and to build in buffers.
  • Fractals: In this domain, Parkinson’s Law is king. There is always more work to be done. The best thing we can do is try and apply ourselves to the highest value work at any given point, and frequently refer back to reality to find out if we’re building the right thing.

Three Dimensions From Fill-The-Bucket

As a result, Sprints can often get derailed by poor estimating.

The cure of estimating is worse than the disease of wasting stake-holder time.

Unintended Consequences

Scrum: Consequences Of Time-Boxing

As shown in the above diagram, the emphasis on estimating as a way to plan sprints means that our measure of success is at the mercy of our ability to estimate. Trust in a team can be eroded not by their failure to “do engineering” but their failure to meet self-imposed deadlines. As a result, we end up with some unintended consequences, as shown in the table below.

Planning Poker Focuses us on…. At the expense of…
What can we commit to in a two-week window Where we should be headed in the long-term.
Narrow goals, such as what we estimated could be done in a given time The wider goals of the product or project in general
Ability to estimate Concerns aside from estimation (such as, are we making the software too complex, too hard to understand, to difficult to change).

Fixing It

How can we convert a planning session away from being estimate-focused and back to delivering us useful insights about what we are building? We want a tool that promotes the following:

  • Consideration for what is going on longer-term in the project.
  • Consideration of risks besides how long something takes. Sure, that’s important, because it affects value, but it’s not the only thing to worry about.
  • Deciding what is important above what can fit into a sprint.
  • Making Bets: what actions give the biggest Payoff for the smallest Stake?

Risk-First Planning: An Example

I’m going to suggest a different approach to planning, which allows you to focus both on short-term goals and long term ones at the same time.

I’ll walk through what this looks like by example to show how it works and then we can see if it addresses some of the issues with Scrum planning we’ve looked at.


In the diagram above, there are four tasks pulled off the backlog for consideration. (Obviously, we’re keeping this simple - you might be looking at plenty more than this in a big team). We’ve got four simple ones for our product here:

  • Fix a rendering bug that showed up when doing a demo a week or so back.
  • Building a search function into the product, something the users have been asking for for a while.
  • Refactoring the subscription system, after some stats revealed that a lot of users don’t make it all the way through the process of upgrading from the free tier to the premium tier.
  • Fix the Continuous Integration Pipeline: developers are complaining that the state of the build isn’t being reported correctly, and some tests are failing randomly.

As it stands, it is impossible to say what we should be tackling next. In order to get to that, we have to answer four questions first. Let’s look at those.

Question 1: What Is The Payoff?

For each of the tasks listed, there is some kind of Payoff for performing them. That is, our circumstances improve from doing the task. On a Risk-First diagram, actions are shown in “sign-post” style boxes.

Rendering Bug

By fixing the rendering bug, we are trying to deal the problem that the software demos badly, and the risk that the potential customers don’t trust that it will be worth their money. Risk-First diagrams show chronology from left-to-right. That is, on the left of the diagram is the world as it is now, whereas on the right is the world as it will be after taking some actions. To show that our action will eliminate some existing risk, we can strike it out by drawing a line through it.

On a Risk-First diagram, if you are removing an existing risk by taking an action, you draw a line through the risk.

Question 2: What Is At Stake?

Let’s move on to task 2, the Search Function.

Again, there is a definite Payoff for implementing this: we’re going to remove some Feature Risk, which is the risk (to us) that the features our product is supplying don’t meet the client’s (or the market’s) requirements. Writing code is all about identifying and removing Feature Risk, and building products that fit the needs of their users.

Search Function

As in the Rendering Bug example, we can show Feature Risk being eliminated by showing it on the left with a strike-out line. However, it’s been established during analysis that the way to implement this feature is to introduce ElasticSearch, a third-party piece of software. This in itself is a risk:

  • Are we going to find that easy to deploy and maintain?
  • What impact will this have on hosting charges?
  • Will it return useful results, or require endless “tuning”?
  • Will we be “tied in” to this dependency going forwards?
If an action leads to new risks, show them on the right side of the diagram.

To decide whether that’s a bet worth taking, we need to ask the next question.

Question 3: What Is Our Goal?

The third question you need to always be asking is: what is our goal?

Considered individually, the tasks on our backlog clearly are operations which change the risks we are facing, but unless we understand the goal or goals of the product, we’re not really in a position to make judgements about whether some set of risks is better or worse.

One Goal

If we are a startup with some investors, they might have set us the goal themselves. Perhaps the future funding of the business is predicated on our ability to generate a certain number of subscribers? Then the business goal might look like that in the diagram above.

As you can see in this diagram goals look very similar to risks. This is by design: a goal is really an “upside risk”: it’s a possible future, but one we’d like to move towards instead of away from.

Risk-First diagrams show Actions moving us away from one set of risks, and moving to others on a “Risk Landscape”.

Refactoring Subscriptions

In the above diagram, we are showing that by removing Communication Risk around our product, we are improving our chances of reaching the goal of 50K subscribers. Also, we are showing in the diagram (via the arrow) that our Communication Risk issues are impeding that goal. That’s a big assumption - it could well be that the users don’t complete the upgrade for other reasons. Maybe they find out the price during the upgrade and are put off, or they are being forced onto the upgrade screen by some dark patterns, but actually have no intention of upgrading the product at all.

Refactoring Subscriptions

Show risks causing or preventing other risks using arrows

Competing Goals


A confounding problem with goals is that everyone has their own. While the business might be there to make money, everyone else on the project will have their own personal goals (as you can see on the diagram above).

Let’s look at the “Fix the Continuous Integration Pipeline” task. It might turn out that we have competing goals here: the Development Team might want to spend time on this task, as the existing, poor CI tooling is damaging productivity and causing acrimony in the team. No one wants to work in an unproductive environment.


That said, the product owners might worry about a different risk: while diverting part of the development effort to fixing CI might help productivity in the long term, it might add pressure to the schedule in the short term, and delay other important tasks from getting done, as shown in the above diagram.

The rounded-corner containers with bold titles show who a risk affects.

Question 4: What Has The Biggest Impact?

So far, we’ve been looking at each task individually, and trying to model how it’s going to affect the Balance Of Risk on our project. If you have plenty of spare talent and only a few tasks, then maybe that’s enough and you can get to work on all the tasks that have a positive effect.

The likelihood is that you’re going to have to choose the highest-impact tasks to work on. That is, those that have the greatest Payoff for the least Stake.

In order to do this, let’s put all the risks and tasks into a planner grid.

Use-Cases With Risk Profiles

In the diagram above, we’ve simply put all of the actions and risks into a planner grid. This two-dimensional grid allows us to sort the actions and the risks according to when they will occur (horizontally) and how important they are (vertically).

In the planning process, this is likely to be where most of the discussion and argument lies: positioning risks and actions is highly subjective. Different teams might end up with different ways of doing that: a product owner or key stake-holder might make this decision autocratically, or perhaps the team will “vote” in some way for the ordering.

We’ve talked about Decision Making before, but we’ll get into ways to approach this in more detail in the next section. But for now, let’s talk about in which ways this is better or worse than Planning Poker.


  • We’ve made explicit the trade-offs for carrying out pieces of work. If building the right thing is the most important thing we can do, then making sure the whole team are on the same page with respect to


Hard Work?

At this point, you might be thinking “this is a lot of work compared to Planning Poker, where I just have to pull a number out of my a**e every few minutes, representing how hard something is to do”. Well, yes. I’m not going to sugar-coat this: product planning is actually really hard. What we’ve developed here is a way to visually represent the trade-offs in the decision making process, so that we can engage the whole team.

The Participation Problem

One argument made for the planning game is that it gives everyone on the development team a voice. In fact, this might be the biggest contribution of Planning Poker, and we definitely don’t want to lose that.

In fact, we’ve not looked at how Risk-First Analysis can be gamified in the way that Planning Poker is, and that is the subject of the next article, in which we show how this process can be made fun to do.

This s

Let’s consider the third task: refactoring the subscription model.

Use-Cases With Risk Profiles

The above diagram gives us some indication why the tasks are on the backlog:

  • Refactoring subscriptions is all about the bottom line: there’s a risk that the company isn’t profitable enough. That might translate into management being replaced, or bankruptcy, or something.
  • The Search Function addresses a risk that our clients may go elsewhere: they’re annoyed with the product’s lack of functionality.

  • Is velocity important?

Scrum is constantly a race to get stuff done and meet estimates. Quite often, the estimates turn out to be BS.

Here’s the rub: 90% of everything I’ve ever written has gone in the bin.

This means, if I just concentrated on doing the useful stuff, I would be 10X better than I am now.

What does that mean?

“Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.”

Going Meta

The problem is that estimation only addresses a single risk: runway risk/time resource. It says nothing about other risks that you might bump into.

Why is all my code in the bin? I guess either it was badly written (which, probably it isn’t, given that it’s probably not objectively worse than the 10% that is in production) or, more likely, it didn’t address Feature RIsk properly, or, it was useful, but people didn’t find out about how amazing it was. Or, it was built to work on top of X, but then X was decomissioned (Dependency Risk) or, the budget was cut from the department and there was no funding (Dependency Risk… but maybe caused by Feature RIsk)?

No estimates says forget about trying to get the numbers right, because you can’t. What’s better than that? Let’s try and focus on reducing that 90% of waste by thinking about risks other than time.

“Ian: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. “ - Jurassic Park.

Risk First PLanning Game:

X: time Y: importance

Place risks on the board (as well as goals). Try and mitigate risks with actions. Consider whether

This is Just Design

The model we are describing here is just a graphic representation

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Rob Moffat
Rob Moffat Author of Risk-First Software Development. Developer. Working in the UK.