Be proactive to keep risk in perspective

Corporate IT is a risky business. That’s not new, but it’s truer now than ever before. Technology, business conditions and strategic requirements change constantly. You can never know in advance whether you really understand what users and the business need, or whether technology can deliver it. And, oh yes, there really are people gunning for you.

That’s a high-risk environment by anyone’s definition. And with the risks and the stakes so high, it’s important to remember what your top priority has to be: staying sane.

What, you thought your top priority should be managing those risks, or minimizing them, or even making them go away? Those are important goals. But they have to be secondary.

Risk distorts our perceptions of reality. So do unavoidable uncertainty and adversarial politics. Threats and problems loom larger than they really should. Mundane matters like doing business and keeping the machines humming shrink from view.

In the face of risk, you have to stay connected to the realities of IT and your business. You have to stay sane. How do you do that? You make plans. Measure performance. And maintain perspective.

Plans keep you tied to reality. They force you to balance costs and benefits, risks and payback. They drag the dangers out in the open and stand them right next to the rewards you’ll get for successfully executing the plans.

Sure, you should take risks into account in every plan you make. And as risks change, you should revisit your plans to make sure the risk/reward calculations you made are still in balance. But a good planning process helps to keep you from reacting just to risk – and sliding out of reality.

Measure performance because that’s how you test your plans against reality. Now’s the time to make sure your metrics measure things you really need to know. You want projects whose success will silence your critics. You want operations that keep the business humming – and keep risks to the business low. Measure to match those goals. Used properly, metrics, like plans, can keep you tied to reality.

Put extra effort into maintaining perspective because that’s the first thing you’ll lose as risks heat up. If you’re constantly putting out fires – or guarding against potential fires – you can’t see the context. That means you can’t take care of business.

And your best tool for keeping the big picture in sharp focus is still the collection of people around you – your bosses, your peers, your users, your IT people. Test your perceptions of risk with them. They’ll help you spot which ones are overblown and which ones you’re underestimating.

Yes, IT is risky. And those risks matter, because every serious IT risk is also a risk for your business.