Identifying potential project risks is an essential task for any project manager.
It enables you to set expectations clearly and to prioritize project tasks and schedules wisely. For many of us, the task of identifying project risks takes the form of a meeting at the outset of a project that is a basic brainstorm of what could go wrong.
In more complex projects however, you might do well to undertake a risk assessment a few more times during the lifecyle of your project.
Here are six ideas for ensuring you identify all relevant project risks:
1. Host a brainstorm
Brainstorming is a free and open approach that encourages everyone on a project team to participate, resulting in a greater sense of project risk ownership, and helping your team to commit to managing risk for the duration of the project.
Try to invite stakeholders from different areas of the business, as they will each have a different perspective on the project and its risks. For your meeting to be effective, we recommend that you define the project scope before the first session. This will help to guide and focus the session.
You should also appoint a leader or facilitator and a note-taker, and take a bit of time to break the ice as well as to ensure that everyone understands the difference between cause, risk, and effect.
It's also helpful to share and explain the basic ground rules of brainstorming.
2. Use a prompt list
The prompt list (newly added in PMBOK® Guide 6th Edition) is a predetermined list of risk categories that are used to assist in identifying risks of the projectsHere are some examples of prompt lists:
- PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal, environmental)
- TECOP (technical, environmental, commercial, operations, political)
- VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity)
4. Create a risk breakdown structure (RBS)
A risk breakdown structure is similar to work breakdown structure (WBS). It's a hierarchical representation of all project risks that starts with high-level risk categories that are split into smaller and more detailed categories and items.
The RBS becomes a checklist for risk identification. Once all the risks are identified, the project manager begins to prioritize them. The Project Management Institute recommends a P-I scoring method where you multiply the Probability (P) of occurrence of a particular risk with the Impact (I) caused by the risk. This way you can objectively prioritize risks by their scores.
5. Use a cause-and-effect diagram
A cause-and-effect diagram, also known as the Ishikawa or Fishbone Diagram, is a great tool for visual brainstorming when you're trying to get to the root causes of potential risks. Understanding the causes (usually people, methods, materials, equipment or environment) can help mitigate the risks.
Here's a video that explains how to create a cause-and-effect diagram:
6. Review previous project reports
Hopefully your project management software enables you to view previous project reports. Looking up similar projects and reviewing the report will help you spot risks and understand the challenges that team faced - which should help you avoid making the same mistakes.
Remember: risk identification is not a once-off task
Once you have gathered your risks, you'll want to document them in a 'risk register' and be sure to review and update the register regularly.
Your risk register should be stored centrally and shared with the project team, as well as regularly discussed with relevant stakeholders to ensure that everyone is aware of the risks and their consequences.
If anything changes during the course of your project, be sure to review and update the risk register accordingly! And of course, you want to encourage your team to contribute risks to the register whenever they feel something needs recording.