Nietzsche, Risk, and the Food Chain

Elizabeth Harrin is becoming a fan of Michael Cavanagh’s book, “Second Order Project Management.”  She reviewed it last summer, and seemed slightly less than enthusiastic, but now she’s quoting Cavanagh in a new blog post.  Elizabeth lists several of his project values, beginning with “We take good risks.  Complacency kills slowly, risk adversity kills quickly.  The result, however, is the same.” I think I know what he was getting at, but this is one of those times when brevity didn’t induce clarity.

Instead, it triggered a recollection of Friedrich Nietzsche’s widely quoted comment on adversity, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  I don’t think Cavanagh wants us to stoically bear adversity for the sake of our projects, any more than Nietzsche wanted us to be complacent about taking risks.  Each of them calls us to consider the reasons we are willing to take risks – the beneficial outcomes – and make rational choices.  Despite what some might say about “making decisions with your gut,” it’s important to remember that yours isn’t the only gut in the game.

So, I’ll let my inner eighth grade English teacher re-phrase this sentiment.  I just want to make it more applicable to the practicing IT project manager, who should guide the project team, sponsor, and stakeholders to select the best risks, based on the available response strategies for the uncertain situation at hand.

“If we avoid all risks, we will eventually starve; if we assume all risks, we will quickly be eaten.  We keep our place in the food chain by mitigating and transferring risk whenever practical, avoiding risk when possible, and assuming risk when necessary.”

And on that note, I think I’ll go to the kitchen and make myself a nice, low-risk snack.  Triscuits and hummus, perhaps …

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including premises-based ERP solutions, like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise, and SaaS solutions, like Workday. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. He also holds the project management professional (PMP) designation, as well as professional designations in human resources (GPHR and SPHR) and in benefits administration (CEBS). In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.

2 thoughts on “Nietzsche, Risk, and the Food Chain

  1. You’re right that I didn’t think the book was particularly revolutionary overall, but I did like his section on project values. It’s a fine balance between choosing the best risks and the best responses, and the way Cavanagh phrases it doesn’t really feel to me as it covers off opportunity risk either. Roasted red pepper hummus on oat cakes would be my version of your low-risk snack!

  2. I agree, the bits that you quoted on project values is excellent. I just got a new Kindle Fire (Christmas gift from the Boss), so once I clear out my reading backlog, I’ll add Cavanagh to the list. And yes, I actually ate some Triscuits (the olive oil, sea salt, and dill flavor) with roasted garlic hummus after I posted the article. Not sure why I’m documenting such a low-risk event, but now that we’ve got those folks who required payroll interfaces for fifty-seven countries into production, I should enjoy a little inconsequential “exposure.”

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