Project Risk Management – Tools and Techniques

Every project, regardless of scope or complexity, is going to have some inherent risks. The type, number and severity of the risks will vary depending on a variety of factors, such as the project’s overall size, its related constituent pieces, the number of individuals on the project, and so forth.

But how does the project manager effectively catalog these risks? How are they adequately itemized and made part of the overall project management plan?

Any sort of risk assessment, regardless of the situation, is always a combination of both art and science, coupled with the individual’s own personal experience and knowledge. Because risks are, in and of themselves, intangibles, cataloging them can be somewhat daunting.

The PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) has an entire chapter dedicated to the concept of risk management. In some cases, seasoned professionals are actually brought in to provide their consulting expertise to make sure that all project risks are effectively itemized. But in most cases, it falls onto the shoulders of the project manager to be able to make that assessment. With that being said, how should the project manager proceed?

If one follows the PMBOK’s suggestions, it is important to create a task list. The PMBOK suggests the following tasks to be performed in sequence:

  1. Define the Risk Management Process (And make this part of the overall project plan)
  2. Identify Risks
  3. Perform a Quantitative Risk Assessment
  4. Perform a Qualitative Risk Assessment
  5. Create a Risk Response Plan
  6. Monitor Risks during the life-cycle of the Project

As some might indicate, the most difficult step in the process itself is to identify the risks themselves. There are some rules of thumb that one can follow when it comes to assessing the risks themselves. A step approach could be something like so:

  • Examine the plan and scope of the project; identify short-term tasks and assess the risk of each one individually
  • Examine the project as a whole; if there are dependencies (internal and external), assess the risk of those dependencies and catalog them
  • Determine the risk of the project not succeeding; what are the financial risks that one must be aware of
  • Assess the budget of the project (if any); determine areas that may induce risk pertaining to budgeting (i.e. cost of contractors, cost of tangibles, etc)
  • Determine any external risk factors, such as competitors or potential changes in market sentiment in regards to the project and its deliverables

Once the risks themselves have been itemized, there are two different ways of assessing the risks: quantitative and qualitative risk analysis. Those are defined as follows:

Qualitative Risk Analysis – This is the more subjective of the two. It relies very much on the experience of the project manager in being able to effectively gauge the risks themselves. A good rule of thumb when performing this type of analysis is to ask specific hypothetical ‘what if’ type questions. A few examples might be:

  • What if engineer ‘A’ leaves the project or is reassigned?
  • Have the requirements been properly itemized? And what if they haven’t?
  • What if the budget is adjusted half-way through the project’s implementation?
  • What if the learning curve for new technology is steeper than anticipated?
  • What if a dependent project runs into trouble? How will that affect the primary project?

Quantitative Risk Analysis – This uses more tangible or ‘hard’ assessment types, such as percentages, probabilities and numbers to demonstrate some of the risks that could cause project problems. In many cases, having this type of assessment available is very important to certain senior management types that require more in the form of numerical values as opposed to more subjective measures. Things like schedule ranges, cost budget ranges, and probability analysis (best or worst case scenario calculations) would fall into this scope.

When it comes to risks, experience of the project manager is the most valuable asset. So if you are a newbie, it might be a good idea to discuss risk analysis with more seasoned and experience project manager’s to gain their insight, especially if they have more working knowledge of a particular area. Also, when you become more familiar with risk analysis, creating a checklist that you can reference for future projects is a very good reusable resource that a project manager can leverage. Combining your list with those of other project managers will also allow you to have a more complete assessment of all the potential risks and risk types that you need to be cognizant of when monitoring your project.

The following graphic is a good frame of reference when it comes to the risk analysis cycle:

It demonstrates the ‘cyclical’ aspect of the overall risk management process. So ensure that you utilize it for reference during the project life-cycle to ensure you are effectively monitoring the project risks.

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Why Projects Fail – Top 10 Reasons

In most cases, projects (and programs) succeed within an organization. Although in general, there are usually ‘issues’ that need addressing during the project life-cycle. Provided the project manager is staying on top things and barring radically unforseen circumstances, a project ‘should’ succeed.

But what happens when projects fail outright? And what are the primary causes for a project failure?

Ultimately, projects failing within an organization could have numerous and inter-related causes. Listed below are the top ten reasons that could contribute to project failure:

1. Lack of a Project Charter

In a previous post, I discussed the requirement for an overall project charter when enacting a new project within an organization. (For reference, you can access that post here: Project Charter: What is it and why is it needed?)

The Project Charter is essentially the ‘what’ portion of the criteria of the project. It dictates exactly what is being built, created or enacted and explains in high level terms the various justification and initial scope for the project. The charter itself becomes part of the over-arching project plan. What makes it so important is that it gives a concise explanation of what the project is actually looking to achieve; all initial stakeholders for the project must sign off on the project charter to ensure they are on board with its definition and are in agreement with moving forward with the project. In many cases of project failure, a poorly defined or non-existent project charter leads to continuous revamping of the project since stakeholders are still providing input into what they ‘thought’ the project was going to do. This leads to delays and endless rework and can often end up causing project slippage or outright failure. The project manager should ensure that they have a detailed project charter in place prior to project start and that ALL stakeholders have signed off on the document.

2. Lack of User Involvement

A project that is producing some deliverable is likely going to have a specific user constituency. i.e. a group of individuals that are the consumers of that product. Whether it be a new hardware widget, a piece of software, or even an augmentation to some existing mechanism, users will be the ultimate customers. As such, it is imperative that the users are actively engaged during the project life-cycle to ensure that their particular feedback and suggestions are effectively cataloged. This is often done with a small subset of product ‘consumers’ who participate in some of the initial product screenings. This then expands to more involved Alpha and Beta release cycles where a broader number of users are brought in and their input is used to guide the project. Failure to actively engage with users can often lead to an end result deliverable that does not meet the needs and expectations of the users.

3. Poorly Defined Requirements (Poor Scope Definition)

While the project charter describes the ‘what’, the low-level requirements explain the ‘how’. It is absolutely essential for the project manager to ensure that the primary requirements for the project are defined early and are as detailed as possible. Holding regular requirements gathering meetings at the outset will reduce the likelihood that the requirements are incomplete. It is also important to revisit these meetings during the execution phase of the project for occasional refreshers and to ensure that the current requirements can be achieved in the allotted timeframe. Note that high and low-level scope need to be adequately itemized as well. Poor defined requirements can be a surefire way to leading to project failure.

4. Scope Creep

The bane of many a project manager’s existence, scope creep is the tendency for stakeholders and project participants alike to try to ‘sneak’ new features or requirements into a project after the primary requirements have already been agreed upon. Adding scope to a project during its run is not in itself unusual, but it is imperative for the project manager to ensure that any changes in scope are effectively discussed and any changes to the schedule are also itemized. The famous ‘triple constraint’ (scope, time, cost) demonstrates that one cannot change scope within a project without changing one of the other items as well. Project managers need to be cognizant of the fact that adding scope without addressing the overall project itself can lead to missed schedules or a poor quality deliverable, since scope was added at the expense of other things, like product quality.

5. Poorly Defined or Unrealistic Time Scales

One of the most important duties for a project manager is scheduling. A schedule defines the timeframe, milestones and key deliverables for a project. It is probably one of the most challenging yet essential parts of the project manager’s job. Which is why when it is either performed inadequately or a sponsor or set of stakeholders give an unrealistic set of goals and timeframes to the team, the project manager must act accordingly. One of the hardest jobs a project manager must undertake is the ability to say ‘no’ or ‘that timeframe is unrealistic’. Management never likes hearing what can’t be done. But invariably, a project manager that willingly ignores all the red flags pertaining to a project’s schedule is just as guilty if the project ultimately fails as the executive team.

6. Inadequate (or non-existent) Testing

Throughout the life cycle of any project, there have to be timeframes and iterations allocated to testing the integrity of the deliverable. This almost seems like a no-brainer. Yet it is striking just how many times projects hit the wall or end up failing miserably in the marketplace because of inadequate testing. Product quality is something that any organization strives for since that actively contributes to the company’s reputation. As such, allocating the necessary cycles and resources to testing at various stages of the project life-cycle is absolutely essential. That includes unit testing, regression testing, alpha/beta testing by consumers and standard build-based testing. In many cases where released products displayed poor quality, the most obvious culprit in those circumstances is a schedule and process that did not allocate the necessary time for testing.

7. Lack of Resources

Every project needs resources. How much and how many depends on the size and scope of the project. Like most project managers can attest, working on projects with scarce resources is not all that unusual. Management will always invariably try to minimize costs while working with maximum productivity. Projects running somewhat ‘lean’ are not an unknown in project management circles. However, there are situations where the project is simply unattainable because the allocated resources are woefully insufficient. In those types of situations, it may be a case whereby key personal required for project success are just made not available. For example, if the project has a requirement for a skilled C# programmer and the individuals allocated do not possess that skill, the project cannot proceed until the necessary resource is provided. In many post mortems on various projects, a common culprit is a lack of specific resources or resource types that were not provided, thereby leaving the project team to try to compensate using their own skill sets.

8. Use of New or Unfamiliar Tools

Good tools are essential for the success of any project. Whether that be access to a good software development environment, a good CRM system or a good defect tracking system, tools are a staple component to the success of any project. However, a common fallacy that many project managers and team leaders often make is attempting to utilize a new or unfamiliar tool at the same time that a new project is starting. This can lead to severe problems during the life-cycle of the project since the team now has to contend with their common project duties while also dealing with the learning curve of the new tool. This can easily lead to delays or outright missed issues if the team members are too novice on the tool to be able to utilize it wisely. As a rule of thumb, it is usually the best policy when thinking of adopting new tools to bring them into the fray gradually. Allow the team to use existing tools for any new or current projects and make adoption of the newer tools reside on a parallel track. Ensure that adequate training is provided and only begin usage of these new tools for any new projects once you are satisfied that the team is up to snuff with their usage.

9. Political Infighting

It exists in companies as well as governments. Functional managers and executives with their own vested interest in specific aspects of the business can often come to blows over new or existing projects. Especially in situations where a project may be spanning several different business units that may or may not all utilize the same process or have the same mid to long-term mission statements. As a project manager, it is important to be able to function adequately as the referee and mediator in these situations and try to smooth out any differences of opinion as they arise. Groups of stakeholders or functional managers involved in a project that do not see eye-to-eye on the project scope, its implementation or its schedule can be extremely detrimental to the overall success of the project.

10. Poor Project Management

With all of the aforementioned being said, the last (and probably least popular reasons, among project managers at least) when it comes to project failure is simply this: poor project management. Now while any of the aforementioned items can cause project problems or outright failure, a good project manager can often stay on top of them. However, what about a project manager that is simply ‘bad’ at their job? It can and does happen. Sometimes, a project was adequately staffed, have a good charter, proper timetables and the backing of the primary sponsor. Yet it simply fails because the project manager did a poor job. In a previous post, I discussed the criteria for what makes a ‘good’ project manager. (For reference, that post can be found here: What makes a good project manager?) Like any other position within a company, the success of your projects and your business as a whole depends on staffing your organization with the right people. And hiring competent, well skilled project managers is no exception.

*Conclusions*

Projects succeed and sometimes, projects fail. Knowing what factors can lead to project failure is important for the project manager so they know what to look for when managing their projects. The aforementioned list should give a project manager the necessary reference to be able to stay on top of things within their areas and get the jump on any problems that arise, thereby minimizing the likelihood of project failure and maximizing the likelihood of success down the road.