Early in the morning on May 27, one of Britain's busiest annual travel days, British Airways canceled all flights from London's two biggest airports. More than 1,000 flights and 75,000 passengers were affected. In a statement, the airline announced that "a major IT system failure" had disrupted flight operations worldwide [Johnston 2017][Dans 2017].
On September 28 "network problems" struck the firm Amadeus IT Group SA, whose Altea software "is used by more than 100 airlines worldwide," including "Air France, Southwest, Lufthansa, British Airways, Qantas, China Air and Korean Air" [Rizzo 2017]. Passengers around the world reported long lines, and although the system did recover that same day, delays of hours were widespread, and many international passengers missed connections.
On that same day, in the midst of worldwide air traffic disruption, Reuters reported that the United States General Accounting Office would be investigating these disruptions and a string of others that had occurred in the previous six months [Shepardson 2017]. Fires, network outages, human error, and goodness knows what else were suspected causes.
Clearly something was not right with the airlines' management of technological risk. And since no major industry understands technological risk management better than the airlines, it's reasonable to suppose that if the airline industry is having trouble managing technological risk, just about everyone is.
However assiduously we avoid risk, we sometimes find — suddenly, as the airlines did — that we're up to our necks in it. How does this happen? How does risk creep into our projects and our operations? Let's consider projects, because they're time-limited and therefore a little less complicated.
When project champions are required to "sell" When project champions are
required to "sell" a project
internally, they sometimes overcommita project internally, they sometimes overcommit. If that happens because of an inordinately high bar imposed by senior management, one possible cause is a most curious phenomenon, related to what Boehm et al. call a "conspiracy of optimism" [Boehm 2016], and which is actually a variant of the n-person prisoner's dilemma [Hamburger 1973]. Specifically, senior management might be trying to manage enterprise-scale risk by requiring high returns at low risk from individual projects (or even individual portfolios of projects). Ironically, this approach results in risk elevation for the individual projects or portfolios, because project champions must promise the nearly impossible, or the outright impossible, to gain access to resources. The paradoxical result is that risk aversion on the part of senior management fosters an environment in which nearly all activities that are underway are high risk. By attempting to wring risk out of the enterprise, management opens the door and invites it in.
It gets worse. It turns out that the risks confronting individual projects, arising from the unrealistic promises of project champions, are correlated. And that means that when one risk event materializes, others will too. We'll explore how project champions contribute to risk creep next time. Top Next Issue
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