Risk Management: Deeper Dive Part 1 – Risk Identification

Executing Monitoring and Controlling

The first step in managing risk is to identify the risks you need to manage. This is the most important step in risk management and something new project managers tend to struggle with. I will present some techniques that have over the years have worked well for me.

  1. What worries you? – You can ask this question to your project team members and stakeholders. Do this first individually, then in groups. Many do not understand the term “risk” as it applies to projects and may come up with a blank if you ask them about risks. Everyone can relate to the term “worry” and I have found this helpful. You may get answers such as “I don’t have enough resources” or “the timeline is too tight” or “I don’t have enough expertise on my team in this area”. These types of answers are a great start in risk identification.
  2. The “Pre-Mortem” – we are familiar with doing “lessons learned” and “post-mortems” on projects. Doing a “Pre-Mortem” can help identify risks. You ask the project team and stakeholdersĀ  “It’s 9 months from now, the project is over and it was a disaster. What are the reasons?”. Your mind works better at identifying risk when looking backwards so this technique can be very effective. You may get responses like “The Sponsor wasn’t involved in decision making” or “We didn’t train the staff on the new tools”. These types of answers are risks that need to be managed. You can also ask the opposite question: “It’s 9 months from now, the project is over and it was wildly successful. Why?”. Responses like “John Jones was assigned as the technical lead” or “The Steering Committee made prompt decisions” will help you identify risks and mitigate them.
  3. Risk Breakdown Structure(RBS) – if you Google this term you will find many examples. An RBS is simply a hierarchy of areas in which risks can occur. You would present each of these areas to the team and brainstorm potential risks for each area. Here is a sample RBS:



Complexity of Interfaces

Performance and Reliability











Dependencies on other projects




Resistance to change





Customer satsifaction

Project Management







You should state your risks in a consistent manner. A common way to phrase your identified risks are: “If (risk event occurs), then (impact to project in terms of scope, schedule, cost, quality)”

Here is an example: “If the vendor is late delivering Component X, then we may not be able to meet the project milestone for the first build”. Note that I stated “may” not “won’t”. Remember, risks are probabilities, not certainties. If it is a certainty, it is an issue, not a risk.


Risk Management Deeper Dive – Introduction

Executing Monitoring and Controlling

When I teach project management principles to non-professional PM’s, I emphasize that the two things you must do to greatly increase your chance of success are (1) create a complete Project Charter, and (2) manage risk. Those two practices, when done well, contribute to the bulk of project success.

In previous topics I discussed Risk Management in two places:

  1. The Project Charter
  2. The Project Management Plan

In the Project Charter, only the initially identified high exposure risks are typically listed and you may not yet have fully developed mitigation and contingency plans. In the Project Management Plan, the Risk Management Plan describes the process of risk management but it does not address the specific risks.

In the “Risk Management – Deeper Dive” series, I will present the following topics in detail:

Part 1: Risk Identification

Part 2: Risk Prioritization (probability/impact/exposure)

Part 3: Risk Triggers

Part 4: Risk Mitigation Strategies

Part 5 : Risk Contingency Plans

Part 6: Risk Ownership

Part 7: Risk Monitoring

Managing risk is a key project management best practice. I strongly suggest you make this one of the first areas of mastering project management.

The Five Steps to Successful Project Management

There are no “secrets” to project management success. It’s a combination of education in PM best practices (the Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK), communication skills, and staying confident, focused and cool under fire. Most successful Project Managers follow these five steps:

Step 1: Know Your Outcomes

In the Project Charter topic, I mentioned the first and most important step in your project is to properly define the business and project outcomes. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know you have arrived? This is as true for personal projects and goals as it is for business projects.

Step 2: Have a Plan and Take Action

You can speak passionately about your desired outcomes but unless you do something about it they are as worthless as having no outcomes at all. Taking action starts with good planning and the topics on the “Project Management Plan” and the “Project Plan” are excellent places to start. Once you have a plan, you can begin execution.

Step 3: Collect Relevant Information Regarding Progress

It is a rare project that goes exactly according to plan. You need to regularly evaluate whether your outcomes are still achievable and the level of progress towards achieving those outcomes. Having this information leads to the next step …

Step 4: Be Flexible and Change Plans as needed

If your project is not proceeding according to the plan, be prepared to change the plan and do whatever it takes to achieve your desired outcomes. This could mean some combination of the following: changing the order of activities, reassigning resources, changing the scope, crashing the schedule, etc.

The Marines have a motto: “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome”. This is also a good motto for Project Managers.

Step 5: Look and Feel Confident

Your project team will take its cue from you. If you are expressing doubts, look worried and anxious, or show uncertainty, your team will start to feel the same. Using PM best practices and following Steps 1 thru 4 in this post will allow you to proceed with confidence.




The Project Schedule Part 7: Schedule Adjustments


After you have created your initial cut of the schedule, you will often find that this schedule will not meet the target date. Adjusting the schedule and adapting to changing circumstance is where Project Managers earn their money.

Here are some of the actions you can take:

  • Focus on the tasks that are on the Critical Path
  • Revisit the estimates – do some of the estimates have more safety time built in than is needed? Where can you reduce estimates and not take on more risk?
  • Fast-Tracking – look at activities that you have scheduled in sequence due to assumed dependencies. Can you do some of these in parallel or at least have some overlap? For example, you might have “Solution Construction” following “Design” but in reality you can start building some of the solution after some (but not all) of the design is completed. Fast-tracking is a very common practice and you will use this on most large projects.
  • Crashing the schedule – this is where you throw additional resources at critical path tasks without regard to efficiency or budget. If meeting the target date is imperative, this is a useful tactic. It is best to plan for this contingency when you are doing your Risk Management Plan in order to have contingency funds in the budget that you can draw on in case the schedule risk is triggered.
  • Obtain stronger resources – you can examine the critical path task assignments and look for opportunities where more experienced and knowledgeable resources would allow you to substantially reduce the task estimates.
  • Reduce Scope – review the ranked requirements and obtain Sponsor approval to remove or delay requirements that are not essential for the initial go-live date.
  • Sacrifice Quality – you can ask the Sponsor for approval to reduce test time for functions that are used rarely or are not business critical.

You are likely to use some or all of the tactics listed above in any project of significant size. It is a critical skill for Project Managers.