The Risk Management Process in Project Management

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When you start the planning process for a project, one of the first things you need to think about is: what can go wrong?

It sounds negative, but pragmatic project managers know this type of thinking is preventative. Issues will inevitably come up, and you need a mitigation strategy in place to know how to manage risks when project planning.

But how do you work towards resolving the unknown? It sounds like a philosophical paradox, but don’t worry—there are practical steps you can take. In this article, we’ll discuss strategies that let you get a glimpse at potential risks, so you can identify and track risks on your project.

What is Risk Management on Projects?

Project risk management is the process of identifying, analyzing and responding to any risk that arises over the life cycle of a project to help the project remain on track and meet its goal. Risk management isn’t reactive only; it should be part of the planning process to figure out risk that might happen in the project and how to control that risk if it in fact occurs.

A risk is anything that could potentially impact your project’s timeline, performance or budget. Risks are potentialities, and in a project management context, if they become realities, they then become classified as “issues” that must be addressed. So risk management, then, is the process of identifying, categorizing, prioritizing and planning for risks before they become issues.

Risk management can mean different things on different types of projects. On large-scale projects, risk management strategies might include extensive detailed planning for each risk to ensure mitigation strategies are in place if issues arise. For smaller projects, risk management might mean a simple, prioritized list of high, medium and low priority risks.

How to Manage Risk

To begin managing risk, it’s crucial to start with a clear and precise definition of what your project has been tasked to deliver. In other words, write a very detailed project charter, with your project vision, objectives, scope and deliverables. This way risks can be identified at every stage of the project. Then you’ll want to engage your team early in identifying any and all risks.

Don’t be afraid to get more than just your team involved to identify and prioritize risks, too. Many project managers simply email their project team and ask to send them things they think might go wrong on the project. But to better plot project risk, you should get the entire project team, your clients’ representatives, and vendors into a room together and do a risk identification session.

With every risk you define, you’ll want to log it somewhere—using a risk tracking template helps you prioritize the level of risk. Then, create a risk management plan to capture the negative and positive impacts to the project and what actions you will take to deal with them. You’ll want to set up regular meetings to monitor risk while your project is ongoing. Transparency is critical.

What is Positive Risk? 

Not all risk is created equally. Risk can be either positive or negative, though most people assume risks are inherently the latter. Where negative risk implies something unwanted that has the potential to irreparably damage a project, positive risks are opportunities that can affect the project in beneficial ways.

Negative risks are part of your risk management plan, just as positive risk should be, but the difference is in approach. You manage and account for known negative risks to neuter their impact, but positive risks can also be managed to take full advantage of them.

There are many examples of positive risks in projects: you could complete the project early; you could acquire more customers than you accounted for; you could imagine how a delay in shipping might open up a potential window for better marketing opportunities, etc. It’s important to note, though, that these definitions are not etched in stone. Positive risk can quickly turn to negative risk and vice versa, so you must be sure to plan for all eventualities with your team.

Project management software can help you keep track of risk. Use the list view from ProjectManager to organize positive risk as you identify it in your project. The list view acts as a to-do list but unlike other apps you can do more than just collect items. Assign team members to own those risks, add documents, set priority and more. Once they’re working on resolving the issue, track the percentage complete. Our list view is easy to share and captures real-time data. There’s no risk involved if you sign up for our free trial.

list view from ProjectManager, with expanded item for more detail
Assign, monitor and track risk with ProjectManager’s list view.

How to Respond to Positive Risk

Like everything else on a project, you’re going to want to strategize and have the mechanisms in place to reap the rewards that may be seeded in positive risk. Use these three tips to guide your way:

  1. The first thing you’ll want to know is if the risk is something you can exploit. That means figuring out ways to increase the likelihood of that risk occurring.
  2. Next, you may want to share the risk. Sometimes you alone are not equipped to take full advantage of the risk, and by involving others you increase the opportunity of yielding the most positive outcome from the risk.
  3. Finally, there may be nothing to do at all, and that’s exactly what you should do. Nothing. You can apply this to negative risk as well, for not doing something is sometimes the best thing you can do when confronted with a specific risk in the context of your project.

Managing Risk throughout the Organization

Can your organization also improve by adopting risk management into its daily routine? Yes!

Building a risk management protocol into your organization’s culture by creating a consistent set of standard tools and templates, with training, can reduce overhead over time. That way, each time you start a new project, it won’t be like having to reinvent the wheel.

Things such as your organization’s records and history are an archive of knowledge that can help you learn from that experience when approaching risk in a new project. Also, by adopting the attitudes and values of your organization to become more aware of risk, your organization can develop a better sense of the nature of uncertainty as a core business issue. With improved governance comes better planning, strategy, policy and decisions.

6 Steps in the Risk Management Process

So, how do you handle something as seemingly elusive as project risk management? You make a risk management plan. It’s all about the process. Turn disadvantages into an advantage by following these six steps.

Identify the Risk

You can’t resolve a risk if you don’t know what it is. There are many ways to identify risk. As you do go through this step, you’ll want to collect the data in a risk register.

One way is brainstorming with your team, colleagues or stakeholders. Find the individuals with relevant experience and set up interviews so you can gather the information you’ll need to both identify and resolve the risks. Think of the many things that can go wrong. Note them. Do the same with historical data on past projects. Now your list of potential risk has grown.

Make sure the risks are rooted in the cause of a problem. Basically, drill down to the root cause to see if the risk is one that will have the kind of impact on your project that needs identifying. When trying to minimize risk, it’s good to trust your intuition. This can point you to unlikely scenarios that you just assume couldn’t happen. Remember, don’t be overconfident. Use process to weed out risks from non-risks.

how to manage risk

Analyze the Risk

Analyzing risk is hard. There is never enough information you can gather. Of course, a lot of that data is complex, but most industries have best practices, which can help you with your analysis. You might be surprised to discover that your company already has a framework for this process.

When you assess project risk you can ultimately and proactively address many impacts, such as avoiding potential litigation, addressing regulatory issues, complying with new legislation, reducing your exposure and minimizing impact.

So, how do you analyze risk in your project? Through qualitative and quantitative risk analysis, you can determine how the risk is going to impact your schedule and budget.

Project management software helps you analyze risk by monitoring your project. ProjectManager takes that one step further with real-time dashboards that display live data. Unlike other software tools, you don’t have to set up our dashboard. It’s ready to give you a high-level view of your project from the get-go. We calculate the live date and then display it for you in easy-to-read graphs and charts. Catch issues faster as you monitor time, costs and more. real-time dashboard from ProjectManager.com

Capture issues before they become problems with real-time dashboards from ProjectManager.—Try It Free!

Prioritize the Risk

Not all risks are created equally. You need to evaluate the risk to know what resources you’re going to assemble towards resolving it when and if it occurs.

Having a large list of risks can be daunting. But you can manage this by simply categorizing risks as high, medium or low. Now there’s a horizon line and you can see the risk in context. With this perspective, you can begin to plan for how and when you’ll address these risks.

Some risks are going to require immediate attention. These are the risks that can derail your project. Failure isn’t an option. Other risks are important, but perhaps not threatening the success of your project. You can act accordingly. Then there are those risks that have little to no impact on the overall project’s schedule and budget. Some of these low-priority risks might be important, but not enough to waste time on.

Assign an Owner to the Risk

All your hard work identifying and evaluating risk is for naught if you don’t assign someone to oversee the risk. In fact, this is something that you should do when listing the risks. Who is the person who is responsible for that risk, identifying it when and if it should occur and then leading the work towards resolving it?

That determination is up to you. There might be a team member who is more skilled or experienced in the risk. Then that person should lead the charge to resolve it. Or it might just be an arbitrary choice. Of course, it’s better to assign the task to the right person, but equally important in making sure that every risk has a person responsible for it.

Think about it. If you don’t give each risk a person tasked with watching out for it, and then dealing with resolving it when and if it should arise, you’re opening yourself up to more risk. It’s one thing to identify risk, but if you don’t manage it then you’re not protecting the project.

Respond to the Risk

Now the rubber hits the road. You’ve found a risk. All that planning you’ve done is going to be put to use. First you need to know if this is a positive or negative risk. Is it something you could exploit for the betterment of the project?

For each major risk identified, you create a plan to mitigate it. You develop a strategy, some preventative or contingency plan. You then act on the risk by how you prioritized it. You have communications with the risk owner and, together, decide on which of the plans you created to implement to resolve the risk.

Monitor the Risk

You can’t just set forces against a risk without tracking the progress of that initiative. That’s where the monitoring comes in. Whoever owns the risk will be responsible for tracking its progress towards resolution. But you will need to stay updated to have an accurate picture of the project’s overall progress to identify and monitor new risks.

You’ll want to set up a series of meetings to manage the risks. Make sure you’ve already decided on the means of communications to do this. It’s best to have various channels dedicated to communication.

Whatever you choose to do, remember: always be transparent. It’s best if everyone in the project knows what is going on, so they know what to be on the lookout for and help manage the process.

Managing Risk with ProjectManager

Using a risk tracking template is a start, but to gain even more control over your project risks you’ll want to use a project management software. ProjectManager has a number of tools that let you address risks at every phase of a project.

Gantt Charts for Risk Management Plans

Use our award-winning Gantt charts to create detailed risk management plans to prevent risks from becoming issues. Schedule, assign and monitor project tasks with full visibility. Team members can even add comments and files to their assigned tasks, so all the communication happens on the project level—in real time.

A screenshot of a gantt chart for risk management planning

Kanban Boards for Managing & Prioritizing Risks

Use our kanban boards to sort and prioritize your risks if they exist in a more agile environment. You can use custom tags to identify tasks as risks within your project. Or, you can dedicate a whole project within ProjectManager to managing risks, so you can quickly see how the urgent risks are being addressed.

project risk tracked in kanban board
Kanban boards for managing risks—Click to learn more!

Risk management is complicated. A risk register or template is a good start, but you’re going to want a robust project management software to facilitate the process of risk management. ProjectManager is a cloud-based tool that fosters the collaborative environment you need to get risks resolved, as well as provides real-time information, so you’re always acting on accurate data. Try it yourself and see, take this free 30-day trial.

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