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A defining skill set of any effective project manager is their ability to assess and mitigate risk. Spotting bumps in the road, predicting outcomes and preventing failures are all part of the responsibility of managing a project successfully.

Risk assessment can be an art form, and there’s a variety of ways to get the job done. We’ll provide a basic rundown below.

What is Risk Assessment?

The broad definition of managing risk is the ability to identify and define any risk(s) associated with a decision, then evaluate all possible outcomes and potential impacts of said risk. It’s the capacity to see problems as they arise, deal with them when they do and, finally, try to prevent them from happening again.

There are two types of risk assessment: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative risk assessment methods are the most effective but are typically difficult to fund due to their lack of numerical estimates. In qualitative management, descriptive and categorical treatments of information are used in lieu of quantitative estimates. They are analytical, evidence-based characterizations of risk, but still provide two primary functions:

  • Identification of risk
  • Risk characterization and analysis

Importance and Elements of the Risk Narrative

A risk narrative is the starting point for any healthy assessment. The risk narrative is simply a way to identify and depict a specific risk. It includes a description of the four generic risk assessment types:

  • Categorizing hazard
  • Consequences
  • Likelihood
  • Final risk

The risk narrative is where the problems get identified, defined and described. Of course, that’s only half the battle – the rest consists of actually assessing that information. When it comes to analyzing the narrative, there are a multitude of qualitative risk assessment methods one can use. We’ll explore some below.

Methods for Analysis

In the same way that there isn’t a universal method to measuring temperature, there’s also a wide range of ways to qualitatively assess risk. The following are just a few of the most popular methods.

Risk Probability and Impact Assessment

This method involves looking into the likelihood of each risk and the ways it may affect separate project objectives, such as those tied to budget, schedule and performance. In this case, negative effects are “threats” and positive effects are “opportunities.”

This type of assessment is generally performed through meeting and interviewing stakeholders, investigating ongoing work and thoroughly documenting results. The PM can then define the threats and opportunities on varying levels depending on how they will affect the project.

Qualitative Risk Assessment Matrix (RAM)

A probability and impact matrix is the first step to defining the rating scales for likelihood and impact of a particular risk. Ratings rules should be specified by the organization in advance so that the project manager knows what to prioritize.

The ultimate goal of the matrix is to identify which risks you need to develop a response for. Likelihood and impact are typically rated on the following scale:

  • Very Low
  • Low
  • Moderate
  • High
  • Very High

These scales are highly dependent on the specs of the project. Therefore, the project manager must perform a matrix for each individual task.

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Risk Categorization

Grouping risks by their common causes can aid in sorting and prioritizing the problems. It helps to determine the areas of the projects that are most exposed to risk and work backwards from there. Categorizing risks allows project managers to view them in smaller, easy-to-manage groups—much like breaking up the tasks in a project.

Urgency Assessment

In qualitative risk analysis, the impending threat of the risk itself must be taken into consideration. The risk ranking determined from the probability matrix combined with the risk urgency can give a project manager a final risk sensitivity rating that can help them better prioritize and manage projects.

Professional Opinion

The judgment of an expert in the field should never be overlooked. Interviews and risk facilitation workshops are just two ways in which you can connect with professionals on managing qualitative risk assessment.

Assessing risk is almost like predicting the future—it’s not an exact science. But with the proper tools – like those from Clarizen – qualitative measures and an open mind, a skilled project manager will be able to avoid risk and continuously steer their projects to success.

David Goulden
David Goulden, Product Director
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