Risk Identification: Getting Help From Your Team

Risk Identification: Getting Help From Your Team

Right now, the project I’m really worried about is my eight-year-old son’s Pinewood Derby car. (For the uninformed, the Pinewood Derby is an annual event in which Cub Scouts pit miniature, wooden, gravity-driven race cars against one another.) He’s got time to work on it, but he just won’t do it, even though all that’s left is sanding, painting, and slapping the wheels on. I hope he’ll get it together, but if he doesn’t, I’ll just have to let the project fail, which I hope will be a lesson in cause (effort) and effect (success or not).

In most working-world project situations, of course, failure is not an option, unless you don’t mind getting fired or assigned to that remote post on the outer frontiers of Nova Scotia. So, here I am again, writing about risk identification.

The people associated with your project are a magnificent source of help in identifying risks, but they may need help getting ideas to bubble up or articulating them.

One thing to do early is the Hit by a Bus exercise. Here you figure out what to do if each individual on the team couldn’t work for a while. Put your folks together and ask about each person. Say Java Jane is out of commission; if you’re lucky, someone will raise their hand and say, sure, they can cover that (check to ensure they really could, in terms of skills, workload, etc.). If you’re not that lucky, the group may still be full of suggestions for covering the Java Jane gap– bringing in a temp or putting her activities later in the schedule, for example. This exercise has the added advantage of highlighting everyone’s contribution to the group. Not a bad team-builder.

A few other techniques you can employ are: brainstorming, nominal grouping, and mind mapping.

In brainstorming, one thing is paramount: Do Not Judge The Ideas! If Conspiracy Theory Guy offers that an electromagnetic pulse from a terrorist plot would knock out all the servers, not to mention the lights, write it down. The time for weeding out the ideas is later. You’ll need a facilitator (not the PM) to keep things running smoothly and a scribe to write down the risks. Use a paper pad to write down the risks, so you’ll have them for later, or get a PC and a projector and have the scribe log risks that way. Just get a big old list for the moment. After brainstorming, you can talk likelihood and impact for each risk listed (likelihood will probably do away with the EM pulse theory).

Nominal grouping might be better than brainstorming if you’ve got a more introverted group. In this process, the facilitator asks each team member to write around a half-dozen risks and not to share their lists with one another. Then the team goes round-robin, asking each team member to read one risk from their sheet that’s not a duplicate of one already mentioned. All the while, the scribe is busy logging everything on a flip chart or projected PC.

Mind mapping is my personal favorite because I like to doodle. First, you’ll need to identify the big risk categories, using one of the methods described so far, or some other method (although that would really hurt my feelings). Get yourself a whiteboard, write one of the risk categories there, and circle it. Now, start pinging the group for 2nd-level risks related to the big one. Write down each 2nd-level risk, circle it, and draw a line from the top-level circle to the 2nd-level one. Then start naming 3rd-tier risks associated with that 2nd-level risk. Write down the risks, draw the circles, draw the lines. Continue in this way until you’ve identified all the risks you possibly can.

As you go through mind mapping, be sure to have a scribe capture everything so you’ll have it later, or, if you have a PC, projector, and graphics whiz-kid handy, pound out the map electronically for all to see. You can always take the stone age option, too, which is to line the walls of a room with butcher paper and map on that. Have fun transcribing it later!

If you were working on a mission to Mars, you might get something like this (no doubt the final diagram would be lots bigger):

Please note: I owe a lot to Carla Crepin-Swift, author of “Project Risk Identification Process: Developing a Comprehensive List of Threats and Opportunities” for info about brainstorming, nominal grouping and mind mapping. Check out her article at http://business-project-management.suite101.com/article.cfm/project_risk_identification_process.


Next: Let’s take a break from risk and talk about roadmapping.

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