July 28, 2009 § Leave a Comment

This is a post about the practice of risk management through use of a ‘DEFCON Door’.

A DEFCON door? Well if you’ve seen that early 80’s film ‘WarGames’ starring Matthew Broderick, or if you simply know your US history, then you’d know that DEFCONs – Defense Readiness Conditions – are used to be a “measure of the activation and readiness level of the US armed forces” (as described on wikipedia). During the Cuban missile crisis DEFCON 2 was reached, with the US airforce readied up to go and bomb their cold-war rival the USSR.

And how might this be applicable to your typical day-to-day IT project? For starters, once on a project what we did was to find a spare door and to configure it as such:

Defcon Door

It’s very simple really. Along the top column headers are the various DEFCONs. DEFCON 1 would mean that it is the consensus of the team that the project is going to fail because of a particular issue; that a very serious risk has indeed materialized. DEFCON 2 risks are still very serious, and DEFCON 3 ones are merely lesser risks that the team feel are important enough to warrant exposure at a particular given time.

What I found most pleasing about the DEFCON door was that it seemed to be a fairly natural extension of the Agile software development practice and was therefore well-adopted by individuals on the project. For instance in a similar way to how we do story estimation a person would read out a ‘risk card’ and then the team would count to three and display with a finger count the the DECON level that they thought the risk had reached. No fingers at all meant that the risk could simply drop off the door altogether – which ought to be a good thing.

Normally every couple of days or so after the standup we would do a quick review of the door. Sometimes, we also did it after a retrospective, because a few things that had been brought up were indeed risks that the team thought were ‘DEFCON appropriate’.

Risks would sometimes traverse up and down through the DEFCONs as the team would attempt to grapple with them, and often risks would be broken up into multiple risks, or instead merged together to form all encompassing ones. No one team member should own the door as it works very well as a collaborative tool where everyone can have input.

Thoughts on effectiveness:

I think often individuals within a team will have very real concerns about some particulars of a project. Personally speaking, one of the wants that I have when I have such concerns is that my concerns will be listened to and registered by the team, and I think the DEFCON door to an extent gives you that.

It also brings the team closer to the risk tracking that would ordinarily be done by project-managers. Although I don’t think it should be a replacement as it best works as a lightweight tool, there’s real value in having team-members contributing to tackling and identifying risks on a day-in, day-out basis.

The DEFCON door also has uses outside the immediate vicinity of the team, such as the ability to show project stakeholders the door and say “these are the major risks that the team feels are present right now”. Often stakeholders not operating within the team will have a want to gauge a collective opinion about how the project is going and the challenges that are being faced. Here the door can play a useful role.

Potential Challenges:

Firstly, it sometimes can be difficult to locate a usable door, especially a nice wooden one. If need be you could use a wall, but then you’d be harming the linguistically pleasing flow of the “DEFCON Door”. It is however, really up to you.

Understanding what the scope is of the door can be at times slightly difficult. For example it can be tempting at times to throw up enterprise-wise risks up on the door that are not directly project-related (e.g. is this architecture appropriate for adoption by the wider organization?). A strategy a colleague of mine came up with is to have a DEFCON corridor, but I fear this may be over-egging the solution. I would endeavor to keep the door simplistic, and if the door identifies risks and questions to be managed elsewhere then that can only be a good thing.

We should also note that this model of risk management is very lightweight and simple, and that there is much more about risks than can easily tracked and measured on the door. Therefore it would seem appropriate to use it to augment a more sophisticated risk management process.

In conclusion, the DEFCON door is a simple tool that aims to bring risks explicitly into the highly visible and participatory realm of an empowered, self-organising Agile team.

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