Wayde Edwards


Masters in Major Programme Management




Life Sciences


2017 - 19

By Wayde Edwards

Major programme risk management explained by kitchen table poker

Major Programmes are large scale initiatives that have the potential to impact millions of people, can take a decade or more to complete and cost upwards of a £1bn. Kitchen poker takes a couple of days to organise, is done in an evening and has a budget that equates to roughly pizza and beer for eight. Seeing Major Programme Risk Management (Module 2) through the lens of a kitchen poker game helped me to remember the key concepts. It might also give you a feel for how the things we learn apply to many areas other than Major Programmes. So, put down those pretzels, shuffle-up and deal!

Before the cards are dealt the game needs to be planned. As in good Major Programme Risk Management all friends or “stakeholders” need to be involved early in the planning. Skipping this step means some people can’t make it and that impacts the quality of the game. Experienced players elevate the standard, keep things moving so there are more hands dealt and help to ensure the rules and spirit are consistent between games. Similarly, in major programmes, wide-ranging stakeholder input is needed to ensure nothing is missed and everyone who should be involved is there from the start.

Black swan avoidance campaign*

As friends arrive and the banter starts it is always clear there is a lot of optimism bias at work. Genuine belief that a small allocation of poker chips will be built up into a huge pile in no time. Regardless of prior performance or how many times chasing impossible card combinations has resulted in an early visit to the sofa. We learn on the course that the forecasts on which Major Programme benefit cases are based often display similar blind faith. If you build that bridge to nowhere, it will become somewhere. Right?

Once the game is underway I normally start thinking about what time to order pizza. I’m a pretty poor demand forecaster of people’s future hunger and often distracted by concentrating on the game. So sometimes I need to “strategically misrepresent” the exact status of the pizza order. Major programme managers and their project sponsors have been shown to do the same in the planning phase and this is something we spend time reflecting on in the module. Lucky for me Friday night delivery times are a bit of an enigma, so I am able to rebuff the inquiries and once the pizza arrives all is forgiven. A bit like the Sydney Opera House, but not quite.

Most players have a moment of glory in a Friday night poker game. The strategies adopted typically follow one of the two risk management approaches. Skilled players, who are in with a chance of winning take the “outside view”. They consider prior performance, observe body language and keep an eye on the cards to gauge probability. The less-skilled players, hopeful of winning, tend to take the “inside view”. They’re optimistic and don’t have time to observe body language or bother with probabilities… they’re either on a good run or not. When they feel lucky, they bet big. Sometimes these bets payoff, completing highly improbable combinations of cards at the very last moment. Much to the surprise and consternation of better players who perhaps underestimated the impact of such a worst-case scenario or “Black Swan” event. Many a good player has gone to sit on the sofa muttering about how “that shouldn’t have happened” and was “entirely unexpected”.

shuffle up and deal*

As the evening progresses and players are eliminated there are regular complaints that the blinds (initial bet to play a hand) are increasing too quickly. Luckily for the players I’m doing a Master’s degree in Major Programme Management at Oxford and know all about reference class forecasting. The timings have been based on a statistically relevant sample of prior games… Helping to avoid the “planning fallacy” where timeframes and complexity are misjudged. If kitchen poker was anything like the disconnect between the planning and reality on major programmes we’d still be playing the game on Monday morning. As the clock passes pumpkin hour the protests have long been forgotten as everyone gathers round, watching the chips pass between the final two players until a winner emerges to take home the kitty. On time, on budget and with everyone having had fun.

*Images provided by

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