8 New Ways to Identify Risks


I hope that early on in your process there’s some form of activity to identify risks to your project. Risk Management is an essential part of the wider project management discipline, and the first step is identifying those risks.

For most of us, this is a simple exercise of getting a few people together to brainstorm a list of all the things that could go wrong. This may be an ad hoc activity, part of a larger meeting, or an early part of a dedicated risk management workshop.

As a method for tapping into people’s store of experience and insights, brainstorming is peerless… in terms of its ubiquity. But, as a trained facilitator, don’t get me started on its
shortcomings as a methodology. They are legion.

But brainstorming is not without its benefits. So rather than criticize it, let’s instead look at a number of alternative methods, in the hope I can entice you to try one or two new approaches next time you need to identify risks.

Brainwriting: Like Brainstorming, But Better

Brainwriting is often more productive than brainstorming, as we’ve noted in a previous blog post, particularly with a large group. One way to brainwrite is to give the group a pile of index cards, and five minutes.

Each participant writes their ideas on separate cards (one per idea). In second and subsequent rounds, participants swap cards and modify each other’s ideas or use them to stimulate a new idea (on a new card), evaluate likelihood or impact, or add ideas for how to mitigate the risk.

At the end, each card contains a trail of ideas and developments that you can review and consolidate.

8 new techniques for identifying project risk

Conduct Interviews for Insights

Sometimes the best way to access people’s insights is in a more measured, less pressurized context. Interviews with colleagues and stakeholders with relevant experience can garner a lot of ideas and information.

As always, prepare your interview structure well and know what key questions you want to ask before starting the interview. This should free you up to listen hard, take notes and respond with follow-up questions. If you can, do your interviews as a double-hander, so one of you can make notes while the other focuses on the interview itself.

Sometimes, it is worth paying for advice from outside experts. This is a valuable option where you and your team have little or no experience with the type of project you have taken on.

Find Mr. or Ms. Doom

Do you know someone who always seems to see the problems in any new idea? They probably suck through their teeth and say something like: “Hmmm… really?” You probably know who they are. 

So sit them down, describe your project and when they say, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” ask them for 20 things they can anticipate going wrong. Some people’s brains just seem wired to spot problems.

Try Horizon Scanning

Horizon scanning refers to techniques that try to look into the future to spot threats or opportunities. It is a process used in both strategy generation and scenario planning.

You can take a systematic approach to scanning the horizon to see what risks are out by starting with a list of sources of risk. There are many you could use and you probably have your own. If you don’t, feel free to borrow mine, which looks for the SPECTRES of the future. It sounds a bit… James Bond… but is just my version of the more familiar PEST or PESTLE framework.

horizon scanning method for identifying risk

Look to the Past to See the Future

If your organization frequently runs projects, and keeps records, you may be able to access a host of historic data to help your search for risks – and later, evaluate them. If your predecessors have done this well and your organization has retained the information in an accessible manner, then reports from previous projects can be a huge asset. Don’t forget, too, that a vast store of organizational memory resides in a company’s staff. Does your organization have an archivist, or back issues of internal magazines, or a formal knowledge management system?

In addition, you may want to see what you can learn from published articles, industry benchmarks and reports. These are often compiled by trade bodies, membership organizations and professional services firms that specialize in a particular sector.

You can also find tables and checklists of risks, like the one in Appendix A of my own book, Risk Happens! (Marshall Cavendish, 2011) or in online resources like Tom Kendrick’s PERIL database. You can even start with a simple, top level list of risk categories:

  • Marketplace risks
  • Technical risks
  • People risks
  • Process risks
  • Property risks
  • Financial risks

Do a Root Analysis (i.e. Don’t Wait for a Problem to Look for Its Causes)

Often, risk registers are filled with big, fluffy risks that are not risks at all. They are outcomes that could arise from many different circumstances. These circumstances are the risks we can plan for and mitigate.

There are a number of techniques that allow you to get at the cause of a problem like “we ran out of money” or “the project over-ran” and so identify the underlying risk. We don’t have space in this short article to examine them, but there are plenty of places where you can find out about them. For risk identification, I favor the simpler approaches, so my short list consists of:

  • The Ishikawa method – also known as the Fishbone Method. This is good for finding multiple causes to an unwanted outcome.
  • The Five Whys method – This is ideal for drilling down to the root causes. By the way, there is no special magic to the number five; sometimes, you can get to the root of the problem with fewer steps; sometimes you need more.
  • The 5W2H method – Seven questions about a potential adverse outcome will give you the basis for systematic investigation: What? Why? When? Where? Who? How often? How much/how many?

Create a Risk Breakdown Structure

Serious project managers, planning a complex project will always create a work breakdown structure (WBS). This forms the basis of a way to identify risks, which gives you maximum rigor. For each activity at the lowest level of your WBS (or each product if that is how you do it), identify all of the risks in undertaking the activity or creating the product. These can be numbered logically, extending your WBS numbering.

An alternative is to create a risk breakdown structure from scratch. Start with a set of risk categories, like schedule, scope, budget, quality, or the example risk categories in the Historic Data paragraph above. For each one, break it down to component risks, and continue until you have a full breakdown of all of your project risks. Again, the WBS numbering system will give each risk a unique identifier for use in your risk register.

Hold a Pre-Mortem to Overcome Overconfidence

Let’s end this survey with my personal favorite approach. It was developed by Gary Klein and he describes it fully in his book, The Power of Intuition. Like brainstorming, it is designed to tap into the intuitions we form from our collective experiences. But where it is particularly strong is in helping us anticipate the unlikely but not impossible cluster-failures that we often assume can’t happen. It starts by putting the group in an environment where they can relax. You then ask them to conjure in their minds a major fiasco on the project.

You may chose to be specific, for example: “It’s go-live day and everything has gone wrong. Now phone lines are jammed and the CEO is on the warpath, looking for the project manager.” Ask people to each develop their own scenario for how that happened.

Next document the scenarios and reduce them to a few clusters of similar ideas, where each cluster represents a significantly distinct scenario. Now, one scenario at a time, facilitate the group in working the story backwards, looking for how that could happen. Generate all the potential reasons for failure and consolidate them into risk lists.

This process will give you a rich picture of multiple combined failures, and a sense of which ones might trigger a cascade.

Final Thoughts

Risk management is an essential discipline in the project management process. And it all starts with identifying the risks your project faces. I hope that more people will now want to embrace alternative techniques to supplement your existing ways of identifying risk and would love to hear what additional methods you have used.

When anticipating risk in a project it’s best to have good tools at your disposal, so you can collaboratively plan, report and monitor the progress of your work. ProjectManager.com is a robust suite of online software features, including risk management. Try these risk management techniques in our tool today, with your 30-day free trial.

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