Managing risks on projects is a process that includes risk assessment and a mitigation strategy for those risks. Risk assessment includes both the identification of potential risk and the evaluation of the potential impact of the risk. A risk mitigation plan is designed to eliminate or minimize the impact of the risk events—occurrences that have a negative impact on the project. Identifying risk is both a creative and a disciplined process. The creative process includes brainstorming sessions where the team is asked to create a list of everything that could go wrong. All ideas are welcome at this stage with the evaluation of the ideas coming later.
A more disciplined process involves using checklists of potential risks and evaluating the likelihood that those events might happen on the project. Some companies and industries develop risk checklists based on experience from past projects. These checklists can be helpful to the project manager and project team in identifying both specific risks on the checklist and expanding the thinking of the team. The past experience of the project team, project experience within the company, and experts in the industry can be valuable resources for identifying potential risk on a project.
Identifying the sources of risk by category is another method for exploring potential risk on a project. Some examples of categories for potential risks include the following:
You can use the same framework as the work breakdown structure (WBS) for developing a risk breakdown structure (RBS). A risk breakdown structure organizes the risks that have been identified into categories using a table with increasing levels of detail to the right. The people category can be subdivided into different types of risks associated with the people. Examples of people risks include the risk of not finding people with the skills needed to execute the project or the sudden unavailability of key people on the project.
Example: Risks in John’s Move
In John’s move, John makes a list of things that might go wrong with his project and uses his work breakdown structure as a guide. A partial list for the planning portion of the RBS is shown in Figure 9-2 The result is a clearer understanding of where risks are most concentrated. This approach helps the project team identify known risks, but can be restrictive and less creative in identifying unknown risks and risks not easily found inside the WBS.
After the potential risks have been identified, the project team then evaluates each risk based on the probability that a risk event will occur and the potential loss associated with it. Not all risks are equal. Some risk events are more likely to happen than others, and the cost of a risk can vary greatly. Evaluating the risk for probability of occurrence and the severity or the potential loss to the project is the next step in the risk management process.
Having criteria to determine high-impact risks can help narrow the focus on a few critical risks that require mitigation. For example, suppose high-impact risks are those that could increase the project costs by 5% of the conceptual budget or 2% of the detailed budget. Only a few potential risk events meet these criteria. These are the critical few potential risk events that the project management team should focus on when developing a project risk mitigation or management plan. Risk evaluation is about developing an understanding of which potential risks have the greatest possibility of occurring and can have the greatest negative impact on the project (Figure 9-3). These become the critical few.
There is a positive correlation—both increase or decrease together—between project risk and project complexity. A project with new and emerging technology will have a high-complexity rating and a correspondingly high risk. The project management team will assign the appropriate resources to the technology managers to ensure the accomplishment of project goals. The more complex the technology, the more resources the technology manager typically needs to meet project goals, and each of those resources could face unexpected problems.
Risk evaluation often occurs in a workshop setting. Building on the identification of the risks, each risk event is analyzed to determine the likelihood of occurrence and the potential cost if it did occur. The likelihood and impact are both rated as high, medium, or low. A risk mitigation plan addresses the items that have high ratings on both factors—likelihood and impact.
Example: Risk Analysis of Equipment Delivery
A project team analyzed the risk of some important equipment not arriving at the project on time. The team identified three pieces of equipment that were critical to the project and would significantly increase costs if they were late in arriving. One of the vendors, who was selected to deliver an important piece of equipment, had a history of being late on other projects. The vendor was good and often took on more work than it could deliver on time. This risk event (the identified equipment arriving late) was rated as high likelihood with a high impact. The other two pieces of equipment were potentially a high impact on the project but with a low probability of occurring.
Not all project managers conduct a formal risk assessment on a project. One reason, as found by David Parker and Alison Mobey in their phenomenological study of project managers, was a low understanding of the tools and benefits of a structured analysis of project risks (Parker et. al., 2004). The lack of formal risk management tools was also seen as a barrier to implementing a risk management program. Additionally, the project manager’s personality and management style play into risk preparation levels. Some project managers are more proactive and develop elaborate risk management programs for their projects. Other managers are reactive and are more confident in their ability to handle unexpected events when they occur. Yet others are risk averse, and prefer to be optimistic and not consider risks or avoid taking risks whenever possible.
On projects with a low-complexity profile, the project manager may informally track items that may be considered risk items. On more complex projects, the project management team may develop a list of items perceived to be higher risk and track them during project reviews. On projects of even greater complexity, the process for evaluating risk is more formal with a risk assessment meeting or series of meetings during the life of the project to assess risks at different phases of the project. On highly complex projects, an outside expert may be included in the risk assessment process, and the risk assessment plan may take a more prominent place in the project implementation plan.
Generally, for complex projects, statistical models are sometimes used to evaluate risk because there are too many different possible combinations of risks to calculate them one at a time. One example of the statistical model used on projects is the Monte Carlo simulation, which simulates a possible range of outcomes by trying many different combinations of risks based on their likelihood. The output from a Monte Carlo simulation provides the project team with the probability of an event occurring within a range and for combinations of events. For example, the typical output from a Monte Carlo simulation may indicate a 10% chance that one of the three important pieces of equipment will be late and that the weather will also be unusually bad after the equipment arrives.
After the risk has been identified and evaluated, the project team develops a risk mitigation plan, which is a plan to reduce the impact of an unexpected event. The project team mitigates risks in various ways:
- Risk avoidance
- Risk sharing
- Risk reduction
- Risk transfer
Each of these mitigation techniques can be an effective tool in reducing individual risks and the risk profile of the project. The risk mitigation plan captures the risk mitigation approach for each identified risk event and the actions the project management team will take to reduce or eliminate the risk.
Risk Avoidance usually involves developing an alternative strategy that has a higher probability of success but usually at a higher cost associated with accomplishing a project task. A common risk avoidance technique is to use proven and existing technologies rather than adopt new techniques, even though the new techniques may show promise of better performance or lower costs. A project team may choose a vendor with a proven track record over a new vendor that is providing significant price incentives to avoid the risk of working with a new vendor. The project team that requires drug testing for team members is practicing risk avoidance by avoiding damage done by someone under the influence of drugs.
Risk Sharing involves partnering with others to share responsibility for the risky activities. Many organizations that work on international projects will reduce political, legal, labor, and others risk types associated with international projects by developing a joint venture with a company located in that country. Partnering with another company to share the risk associated with a portion of the project is advantageous when the other company has expertise and experience the project team does not have. If a risk event does occur, then the partnering company absorbs some or all of the negative impact of the event. The company will also derive some of the profit or benefit gained by a successful project.
Risk Reduction is an investment of funds to reduce the risk on a project. On international projects, companies will often purchase the guarantee of a currency rate to reduce the risk associated with fluctuations in the currency exchange rate. A project manager may hire an expert to review the technical plans or the cost estimate on a project to increase the confidence in that plan and reduce the project risk. Assigning highly skilled project personnel to manage the high-risk activities is another risk-reduction method. Experts managing a high-risk activity can often predict problems and find solutions that prevent the activities from having a negative impact on the project. Some companies reduce risk by forbidding key executives or technology experts to ride on the same airplane.
Risk Transfer is a risk reduction method that shifts the risk from the project to another party. The purchase of insurance on certain items is a risk-transfer method. The risk is transferred from the project to the insurance company. A construction project in the Caribbean may purchase hurricane insurance that would cover the cost of a hurricane damaging the construction site. The purchase of insurance is usually in areas outside the control of the project team. Weather, political unrest, and labor strikes are examples of events that can significantly impact the project and that are outside the control of the project team.
This chapter is a derivative the following texts:
Essentials of Project Management by Adam Farag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.