The Risky Business of Small Projects (Part Two)

Risk Knowledge Area

One of the great things about my Project Management course at the University of Arizona is that students have the ability to immediately apply what they learn in lecture.  That’s because I organize the class into teams that then go out into the community, seek meaningful projects, and perform them pro bono over the course of the term.

There have been some great projects such as a Chemistry Day for Autistic children, a Biology Day for second graders at a local elementary school, a street clean-up project, recycling awareness campaign for university students, and the development of an electronic system to track signs for the Tucson Festival of Books, just to name a few.  All are small projects of less than 500 hours, but they have a big impact.  Client letters of appreciation tell me so.

One of the first things student teams do is develop a Project Charter that contains a section on risk.  Although I mention the importance of risk management throughout the class, I find that mid-way through the course — when it’s time to cover the topic in depth – no team has revisited the subject since the development of the Charter.  Indeed, when I announce the in-class assignment for the day is to update their team’s Risk Register, I speculate aloud about how I suspect no team has done so since the Charter was created roughly a month or so in the past.  There are always nervous laughs of acknowledgment in response.

And there’s good reason to revisit risks on a regular basis — even in small projects such as the ones I describe above – because if unmanaged, they will have a negative impact on the likelihood of success (as I’ll describe shortly).  That’s why I’m devoting this entire post to the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) process of Identify Risks.  According to the 5th edition of the Project Management Body of Knowledge, this is “the process of determining which risks affect the project and documenting their characteristics” (p. 319).

Initiating Process Group

Planning Process Group

Executing Process Group

Monitoring and Controlling Process Group

  • N/A
  • Plan Risk Management
  • Identify Risks
  • Perform Qualitative Risk Management
  • Perform Quantitative Risk Management
  • Plan Risk Responses
 N/A
  • Control Risks

 

Of course, this process isn’t one and then done.  That is, you can’t check the box on this one at any time during the life of the project.  It’s something that must be addressed at regular intervals.  As the Sponsor for all of my student teams, I think about the risks to student learning from a macro perspective.  However, one of the problems I did not anticipate came to fruition last term when about three-quarters of the way through the semester, one of the team’s clients went out of business.  I was heartily sorry for the owner, but also for my students as there was no way to complete their project, which was to produce a marketing plan and social media strategy for the business.  As I do not believe in busy work, I didn’t want them to create materials no one would use.  So, I disbanded the team and re-assigned the students to other groups.  It was not my preferred outcome, although things turned out OK in the end.

The problem was that I had failed to identify this as a risk for the class (which is a project for me, right?) even though there had been a few warning signs along the way.  You’ll find the experience has influenced the following list of tips when identifying risks on small projects:

  • Think outside the box.
    • Just because it has never happened before, doesn’t mean it never will.
  • Review other Risk Registers.
    • Mine the Risk Registers of previous projects and similar projects for risks that could impact your project.
  • Involve everyone.
    • Given the context of this post is the small project environment, it should be possible to include the entire team in this process, or at least a representative from each discipline (e.g., engineering, marketing, test).  Each person has a unique set of experiences and skills, and you’ll want to ensure you benefit from their knowledge during this process.  And don’t forget the suppliers!  Given you’ve chosen them for their expertise in a certain field, you’ll want to ensure you include their perspective in this process.  Also, ask your client representative for his/her ideas.  The buyer may have contracted with other organizations on a similar project – what problems did they encounter?
  • Brainstorm
    • What could possibly go wrong on this project?  Remember, there are no bad ideas during brainstorming.  Later, you’ll weed out inapplicable risks, but in the interim, benefit from the free-association of ideas.  You may wish to use the services of an outside facilitator or professional Risk Manager so you can also participate fully in this process.
  • Talk to other Project Managers and Sponsors
    • Even though they may not be assigned to your project, talk to others who could lend insight about potential problem areas.
  • Regularly identify new risks.
    • As the project progresses, you’ll have new and improved information.  Use it to refine existing risks and mitigation plans, and also to identify new potential problems.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t insert a plug for opportunities in this post.  Remember from my last article that opportunities are positive risks, meaning they have the potential to impact project parameters in good ways such as saving money or time.  Once your project is done identifying negative risks, make sure you spend an equal amount of time identifying positive ones too.

Next time, I’ll write about Perform Qualitative Risk Management in the small project environment.  Until then!

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