March 12, 2009

Brief tip 5: Use a visual risk log as a communication tool

Risk is most often defined as uncertainty of outcome (both PRINCE2 and PMBOK stress that both negative and positive impacts are considered risks). As a project manager you cannot always find appropriate actions to mitigate risks, but you should be sure to communicate your view of risks and their status.

One of the great things about agile methods is that they have a built-in capability of reducing risk by working in small increments. Nevertheless, risk management is sometimes overlooked by Scrum-masters and the like that was “born agile” that does not have the classical, old fashioned if you will, project pyramid theory under the skin. I actually think this is an area where the agile movement can be supplemented by methods from more traditional methods, such as PRINCE2 or PMBOK.

The steps in risk management are really quite straightforward: 1) Identify risks 2) Classify them 3) Select appropriate actions. I think it is important to separate risk identification and classification. If you don’t, the risk (pun intended) of prematurely ignoring a risk as already handled or not understanding its impact if happening it is too great. Risk classification will vary from project to project and organization to organization, but impact, probability and proximity (in time) will be safe bets as a starting point. Needless to say, the risk log should be a live document that you keep updated throughout the project – I would say that a weekly review is a minimum.

If you set up the format of your risk log, be it a formal risk log of your favourite project management method or a more informal overview you keep for yourself, in a practical way, you can automatically view the risks visually. I have found this to be a good tool for communicating the status of risks to project boards and the like. Below is a risk matrix for this blog post created by such a setup:

I have uploaded the excel sheet that I used to create the above graph. I hope you find it useful. As mentioned, I think the risk log and resulting matrix can be a great communication tool – even if the exact computation of impact and probability is not very sound mathematically. The idea is of course both to keep an overview, but also to move the risks down and to the left. But don’t let the matrix lull you into a false sense of control, of course.

That was my tip #5. If you don’t agree, please leave a comment. Oh and I almost forgot to formulate the actual tip, here goes:

Keep a close eye on risks throughout the project and use a visual risk log as a communication tool