Quality Leadership: Risk Analysis as Quality Advocacy

Getting Started — Published October 6, 2021

Communicating about quality is the job of quality leaders, in formal or informal roles. The degree to which you will be heard as a quality leader depends on both what and how you communicate. It can be tempting to show off the depth of your quality experience and knowledge during these opportunities to communicate with business leaders or managers in the company. However, you are most likely to be heard if you can communicate impact that can be readily understood based on quantitative measures of the business impact of quality risks, including lost sales, increased support calls, or increased costs fixing problems that cannot be spent on new development.

All of those business impacts can be understood and communicated as quality risks. This article will tell you how to talk about quality risks to uphold product quality and exercise quality leadership in your organization, using the language of business stakeholders for maximum efficacy.

What Is a Risk in the Context of the Desired Business Outcome?

Investopedia defines business risk as “the exposure a company has to factor(s) that lower its profits or lead it to fail.”  Software leaders face a number of business risks that cause high levels of concern and drive strategy decisions that impact the day to day. What are the key risks that your leadership team feels the business faces? In order to get traction on the quality risks you encounter, you need to understand what your company perceives as their biggest risks, and relate your quality concerns to these risk areas.

Finding and Communicating the Most Impactful Risks

Once you have an understanding of the key risks that face your business, you can gather more context around the costs of risks becoming reality. You can gather data from past risks that have become reality by looking through customer complaints in the form of support tickets, customer reviews, or other evidence of impact. Then, you can learn more about the cost of the impact by speaking with support people on the amount of time they spent on tickets related to a certain problem. How much does a support person cost, and how many support people does it take to mitigate and resolve failures that did not need to happen in the first place?

Then there is the impact on sales. Sales teams keep data on the reasons a sale did not go through, or was not as robust as they expected. Reaching out to sales teams to see if major failures had a sales impact is another source of data to understand the kinds of risks that have impacted business performance.

Finally, there are developer costs of major failures. These costs include time to diagnose, contain, understand, and fix the failure in the moment, and then all efforts and re-work needed to remedy against the same or similar failure happening in the future. Using these methods and others, you can begin to determine the business costs of software quality problems.

Using Risk Learning to Determine What’s Most Important

Understanding the way that failures and risk impact the business, and knowing what risks the business is most concerned about, can help you understand what risks you will have the most ease in raising successfully. You can use a basic risk matrix to prioritize all the risks you see, based on the probability of failure, and the impact of the failure on the business. You can assign high levels of complexity and iterate on this basic formula; there are many software solutions that allow for this. However, to start prioritizing risks and level-set for internal conversations, I have found the basic formula quite effective.

Here is the basic formula for calculating a basic risk score:

total risk = probability of failure x impact of failure

The scale I have used for each level when I have used the basic formula:

Risk LevelProbability of FailureImpact of Failure

A google search about calculating risk scores yields several variations on this formula, which may give you ideas about what will work best in your organization.

How Much Should I Communicate?

As quality professionals, it’s really tempting to communicate all the risks, because we understand how each presents a suboptimal user experience. Yet, brain science research has shown that people can only hold three to four things in their conscious mind at the same time. To make the most of our time with business leaders, we must focus on the top three or four risks to the project. This means communicating clearly and succinctly about the most critical risks and using face-to-face conversation time to advocate for why those risks need to be addressed. Other risks should be recorded and acknowledged in a ticketing system, work plan, or other documentation, but should not be enumerated during face-to-face time.

To communicate in a memorable way, find the most impactful customer stories connected to the cost that failures have caused the business. Research shows that storytelling is a key way to move people, and finding ways to combine quantitative cost data with stories can reinforce the need to address critical quality risk.

Finally, put together your findings in a report or communication that is short and to the point. Most people don’t pay attention beyond 2 or 3 slides or one page of a report; they want the bite-sized version of the problem, along with potential solutions that fit into the needs of the business. Clear, concise presentations will help provide the visual material to support your cost facts and customer stories.

Advocating for quality is an art and a skill. Prioritizing and communicating quality risks based on past business failures, costs, and current business concerns can help you to tell the right stories to make sure that major quality issues don’t slip through the cracks.

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