Most common OSS project risks – top ten

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OSS projects are full of risks we all know it. OSS projects have “earned” a bad name because of all those risks. On the other side of that same coin, OSS projects disappoint, in part I suspect because stakeholders expect such big things from their resource investments.

Ask anyone familiar with OSS projects and you’ll be sure to hear a long list of failings.

For those less familiar with what an OSS project has in store for you, I’d like to share a list of the most common risks I’ve seen on OSS projects.

Most people working in the OSS industry are technology-centric, so they’ll tend to cite risks that relate to the tech. That’s where I used to focus attention too. Now technology risk definitely exists, but as you’ll see below, I tend to start by looking at other risk factors first these days.

Most common OSS project risks / issues:

  1. Complexity (to be honest, this is probably more the root-cause / issue that manifests as many of the following risks). However, complexity across many aspects of OSS projects is one of the biggest problem sources
  2. Change Management – OSS tend to introduce significant change to an organisation – operationally, organisationally, processes, training, etc. This is probably the most regularly underestimated component of any large OSS build
  3. Stakeholder Support / Politics – Challenges appear on every single OSS project. They invariably need strong support from stakeholders and sponsors to clear a path through the biggest challenges. If the project’s leaders aren’t fully committed and in unison, the delivery teams will be heavily constrained
  4. Ill-defined Scope – Over-scoping, scope omission and scope creep all represent risks to an OSS project. But scope is never perfectly defined or static, so scope management mechanisms need to be developed up-front rather than in-flight. Tying back to point 1 above, complexity minimisation should be a key element of scope planning. To hark back to my motto for OSS, “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should)
  5. Financial and commercial – As with scope, it’s virtually impossible to plan an OSS project to perfection. There are always unknowns.These unknowns can directly impact the original estimates. Projects with blow-outs and no contingency for time or money increase pressure on point 3 (stakeholders/sponsors) to maintain their support
  6. Client resource skills / availability – An OSS has to be built to the needs of a client. If the client is unable to provide resources to steer the implementation, then it’s unlikely for the client to get a solution that is perfectly adapted to the client’s needs. One challenge for the client is that their most valuable guides, those with the client’s tribal knowledge, are also generally in high demand by “business as usual” teams. It becomes a challenge to allocate enough of their time to guide  the OSS delivery team. Another challenge is augmenting the team with the required skill-set when a project introduces new skill requirements
  7. Communication – OSS projects aren’t built in a vacuum. They have many project contributors and even more end-users. There are many business units that touch an OSS/BSS, each with their own jargon and interpretations.  For example, how many alternate uses of the term “service” can you think of? I think an important early-stage activity is to agree on and document naming conventions
  8. Culture – Of the client team and/or project team. Culture contributes to (or detracts from) motivation, morale, resource turnover, etc, which can have an impact on the team’s ability to deliver
  9. Design / Integration – Finally, a technology risk. This item is particularly relevant with complex projects, it can be difficult for all of the planned components to operate and integrate as planned. A commonly unrecognised risk relates to the viability of implementing a design. It’s common for an end-state design to be specified but with no way of navigating through a series of steps / phases and reach the end-state
  10. Technology – Similar to the previous point, there are many technology risks relating to items such as quality, scalability, resiliency, security, supportability, obsolescence, interoperability, etc

There’s one thing you will have probably noticed about this list. Most of the risks are common to other projects, not just OSS projects. However, the risks do tend to amplify on OSS projects because of their inherent complexity.

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