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Identifying and prioritising project risks

Graeme McCubbin, Jan. 6, 2020

Identifying, understanding and prioritising key risks is a core part of any project. No matter what you and your team are looking to achieve, there is always a level of risk involved on the journey reaching your goal.

To ensure success, it’s important to know what you’re facing and what your biggest risks are, so you can plan for mitigating these risks.

What you’re creating might not meet the needs of the people who need it, there’s a chance it might not integrate with the systems it needs to, or you might not be able to secure budget for the following phase. These are just a few potential examples.

There’s a wide range of different types of risks involved in a project. Knowing how to identify and mitigate these risks from the very beginning can put your project and your team in the best place to succeed.

Assessing project risks

As part of the very beginning of a project, Unboxed teams run a kick-off (or alignment) workshop with our customers. These are typically a full-day workshop with the core team and stakeholders, involving a number of different activities, including setting the vision, identifying our users through personas, mapping their current user journeys, stakeholder mapping and a number of different tasks for beginning a project or phase (depending on the project). As part of this workshop, identifying and prioritising risks then creating mitigation strategies is a core task.

Here is one method of facilitating this task, ensuring that you can head into your first sprint with a good understanding of the challenges that you and your project may be facing.

Step 1: Identify every possible known (and unknown) risk

Clear a blank wall space, share out pens and post-its across the room and introduce three risk areas:

  • Business risks; what could stop us from achieving desired business objectives?
  • Design risks; what could disrupt our design process?
  • Technology risks; what are the relevant technical constraints and challenges?

With each post-it representing a single risk, get everyone in the room to write down all the risks they can think of that could hinder success to this project. One risk could even be “the unknown”.

Identifying project risks

Step 2: Group similar themed risks together

Using your wall space, divide it into three columns (business, design and technology) and have individuals talk through their post-its, beginning with business.

What is this risk? Why is it considered a risk?

If someone else has a similar risk, groups these together into themes, then do the same across design and technology. Be sure to talk through each risk, or theme of risks, so there’s a shared understanding across the room, allowing people to ask questions for clarification.

Step 3: Vote on the biggest risks

With your wall space filled with individual and grouped risks, take out some sticky dots and give each person in the room 3-5 dots. It’s time to vote on what people consider the biggest risks for this project.

Step 4: Prioritise your biggest risks

Groups of dots should have formed around some key areas. The risks with the highest number of dots (“votes”) should indicate a consensus on the areas of biggest risk for your project. Prioritise these in accordance to the number of dots received, moving from highest to lowest.

Prioritising each project risk

Step 5: Identify mitigation strategies

With your prioritised list, start from the top and open a discussion across the room to identify a strategy for mitigating this risk, with the facilitator writing down the strategy and putting it next to the risk area on the wall.

For example, a design risk could be not speaking to enough users to identify their user needs. A mitigation strategy for this could be to work with project stakeholders to identify a user recruitment strategy for meeting a wide and varied demographic of people to interview.

Is everyone agreed that a strategy should work towards mitigating a risk?

Step 6: Take your risk list into your first sprint planning session

Take your prioritised risk list and mitigation strategies into your first sprint planning session with the core project team. During planning, identify the activities your team should be undertaking to mitigate these risks, then have the Product Owner prioritise these activities, with help from the team.

Step 7: Keep risks at the forefront

It’s important to keep your risk list at the forefront of your project to ensure that you are constantly addressing these until they are mitigated. One method of doing this can be to create a ‘Risks’ column in your online project board, putting your prioritised risk list in a visible place within a tool that is used by the team every day.

This is an example of just one method that our teams use at Unboxed for identifying and prioritising key project risks at the beginning of a project. Try this as part of your next project kick-off workshop to see how it works for you.