Pipecleaners – Experiments in Risk Management

Pipecleaners are a powerful metaphor and an interesting approach for managing all sorts of risks. I’ve heard it mentioned by my boss a couple of times, but with the boss filter on I hardly knew what he was referring to or where it could ever be applied. Having launched LinkPeelr (in a completely different category of software from what I launch in my day job), I’ve now come to see a more universal applicability of pipecleaners.

The principle is a simple one. Pick a project, an idea, a process or a well-defined part thereof and designate it as a test case for something more hefty, involved or risky. Pipecleaner projects are often the trailblazers, and they should always be saddled with maximum risk. This way while a pipecleaner is being executed it runs into all the possible adversaries and obstacles, thus clearing the field for execution of analogous, but scaled up versions of itself.

It comes as no surprise that pipecleaners should designed for controlled failure. A failed pipecleaner should have minimum impact on the overall business, and losses due to a pipecleaner implosion should be carefully enumerated upfront. At the same time, a successfully run pipecleaner can be a treasure trove of real world learning.

The main challenges of running pipecleaners are thus:

  1. Defining a pipecleaner project such that it is sufficiently representative of a larger idea that needs testing.
  2. Being able to easily punt on a pipecleaner if things go awry. If and when they do, you’ve not only lost out on valuable learning, but also wasted precious time and energy on pipecleaner execution up to that point.
  3. Selling pipecleaners within your organization. Many organizations are pipecleaner-averse because this type of experiment is laden with risk and is explicitly designed to test which risks pose the greatest threat.
I believe that “what we don’t know we don’t know” set of risks is far too expansive and unpredictable for the “let’s just wing it” approach. Running a pipecleaner can lift the fog of war in places where proves the most deadly. Moreover, a pipecleaner can anticipate and help circumvent greater and more costly obstacles that a larger idea or process may face further down the road.

LinkPeelr was designed to test my ability to execute and to take an idea, albeit a very small one, from launch to execution. It was also designed to help me answer questions like: Can I design and execute technically and how fast? Can I promote the application so that it gathers enough steam to continue growing without significant investment of my time? And can I produce a good enough idea in general?

The growth part is still an open question, but the rest is a pretty clear yes, which in turn informs the way I tackle future projects. I now feel like I have a much better handle on how well I can execute in principle, which areas pose the greatest risk, and which are tricky. In the end, many of these revelations turned out to be surprises.

And although we all like suprires in general, we tend to not like the surprises that can derail our bigger endeavors. This is where pipecleaners really come in handy.


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