Introduction to Risk Assessment in Project Management

Introduction to Risk Assessment in Project Management

Project Management Institute’s (PMI) inclusion of risk management skills in multiple PMI certifications indicates the importance of risk across industries and in all projects. The risk management process includes risk identification and risk assessment. During an assessment, the project manager uses standard risk tools and quality data to help the team better avert later problems, manage the project cost, and keep project work on schedule. Risk assessment is the process by which the identified risks are systematically analyzed to determine their probability of occurrence and the potential impact of that occurrence.

What is a risk assessment?

Project teams use risk assessment, a qualitative measure using risk data and the parameters of probability and impact, to identify, categorize, prioritize, and manage risks before they happen.

A “risk reassessment” is the work done to update the original risk assessment due to changes in the project or overall risk management efforts.

For the original and subsequent assessments, the quality of data used to determine the impact directly correlates to the accuracy of the risk assessment and resulting decisions.

What are Risk Assessment PMP and Risk Reassessment PMP?

Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential holders have shown their knowledge of a risk assessment and their understanding of the high cost of a failure to do a risk assessment. For the PMP certification exam, students need to know the importance of a risk assessment and how to use a probability and impact scoring matrix to help inform the priority of the risk.

Within the PMP exam context, “risk assessment PMP” and “risk reassessment PMP” are informal terms referring to taking identified risks and assessing them using qualitative data, such as the probability of occurrence, to determine the potential impact. From that, project managers determine the risk score, which is an input to subsequent risk response activities.

When is a Risk Assessment needed?

Risk identification should happen early in the project, closely followed by the risk assessment. Project teams should conduct risk reassessment throughout the life of a project. Updating the risk register is a good reminder to update the corresponding risk assessment. The project’s scope and risk management plan will inform how frequently the reassessment should be conducted (projects of bigger scope should have more reassessments; similarly, smaller scope requires fewer reassessments).

Why is a Risk Assessment important?

Performing a risk assessment is critical to ensuring the success of a project because it puts the project team in a state of preparedness. When done with verified tools and quality inputs, risk assessment may take time but can prevent problems from negative risks and enable opportunities from positive risks. As shared in the PMI conference paper Risk Assessments—developing the right assessment for your organization, “The best project organizations are those who realize that a risk assessment template is a valuable asset in managing the organization’s bottom line.” Risk assessment connects to managing cost, timelines, and quality.

Example use of Risk Assessment: hurricane impacting town

For an example of how a risk assessment can be used, we use the example of a small municipality located on the east coast of North Carolina. The coastal town has been impacted by natural disasters in the form of hurricanes several times in the past fifty years. A hurricane is a storm that starts in the ocean and moves inland, causing all levels of flooding, electrical storms, and damaging winds. The National Weather Service provides annual forecasts of which geographic regions are predicted to have hurricanes, as well as the number of occurrences and strength of hurricanes.

The town manager (“project manager”) and the town administration (“project team”) know a hurricane will happen but not when or how strong it may be. In the risk category of weather events, the project manager and project team identify the risk type of hurricane storm. Then the project team identifies specific potential risks, such as flooding that may cause building damage. The team assesses each risk in terms of probability (or how likely it is to occur), the impact if it occurs, and the probability-impact score (weighing the significance of the risk on the project). The information is captured in a risk assessment matrix as part of the project management and risk management documentation.

For example, they do a risk assessment after the project manager and team identify the risk of water damage to downtown buildings due to hurricane-induced flooding. The team uses standard tools to determine the probability of that specific risk (flooding) and the impact if it occurs (water damage to buildings). The project team uses verified data, like National Weather Service hurricane projections, for probability estimates. For the potential impact, the project team uses cost and quality data like town records to determine what could happen to town property. The data and risk scoring are organized in the project risk assessment matrix and communicated to stakeholders.

Continuing our example of the identified risk of water damage to ground floors, if the assessment indicates the risk is highly likely to occur with a high impact of damage, it will have a higher risk score. That can mean more time invested in risk response planning (such as securing funding to buy and store sandbag materials during flooding to reduce the impact of water damage on buildings). The risk response plan would likely include purchasing sandbag materials before a hurricane, storing them in an accessible space, and training the town staff to set up the sandbags to protect critical buildings when a hurricane is imminent. The cost of buying and storing sandbag materials to protect the buildings is much lower than the cost of fully repairing water-damaged buildings.

In this risk example, the project team:

  • determined the appropriate risk categories (natural disasters)
  • determined the types within the category (hurricane storms)
  • identified a risk event (hurricane bringing flooding to downtown buildings),
  • assessed the impact of that risk (flooding damages ground floors),
  • assessed the probability of the impact (flooding may be higher or lower but always occurs with hurricanes),
  • documented the risk information, including risk scores in the risk assessment matrix,
  • communicated the risk assessment results to the team and stakeholders, and then
  • used the risk assessment matrix as an input for risk response planning (making sandbag materials available when needed and training people to set them up).

With this example, you should see the risk assessment allows the project team to identify, categorize, prioritize, and mitigate/avoid/exploit risks prior to their occurrence. A risk assessment is a proactive approach in which the risk is identified and assessed to manage cost, reduce negative impact, and protect the project (in this example, town buildings).

What inputs are needed for a Risk Assessment?

A risk assessment should be customized to fit the project context. Standard risk assessment inputs include:

  • Project management plan
  • Risk management plan
  • Risk assessment methodology
  • Risk parameter definitions
  • Risk tolerance levels
  • Risk probability and impact matrix template
  • Risk assessment scale (what criteria are used to determine if the risk score is high, mid, or low)
  • Risk assessment matrix template

Project managers and project management students use what is informally referred to as the “assessment of other risk parameters PMP” to tailor their risk assessment to a specific project. While probability and impact values are used in all risk assessments, additional parameters, like cost or schedule, can be standalone matrices.

What is a Risk Data Quality Assessment PMP?

Risk assessment is a qualitative assessment. Therefore, risk data quality (sometimes referred to as “risk data quality assessment PMP”) always impacts the risk assessment quality. A risk data audit helps ensure the quality of data used in the risk assessment. Project managers may use experts or previous project documentation as part of the risk data quality assessment to ensure the accuracy of the overall risk assessment.

What outputs does a Risk Assessment generate?

The risk assessment outputs are part of the overall project and risk management documentation. A risk assessment can generate the following:

Risk assessment should occur throughout the project. With each iteration, known as a risk reassessment, the risk documentation should be updated accordingly.

How to Create a Risk Assessment

For the PMP exam, students need to know the importance of a risk assessment and how to use a probability and impact scoring matrix to help inform the priority of the risk. Project Managers and PMP credential holders should know the seven steps to risk assessment.

1.      Identify applicable risk types and organize them

You cannot assess risk if you have not identified it. Begin your risk assessment with risk identification. With your project team, identify potential scenarios that could harm your project. Risks can be of any size and with internal or external triggers. Your team may identify risks that include computer viruses, manufacturing defects, natural disasters, or shipping delays. Each risk is identified and documented in the risk register. The risk may be organized by different factors (internal or external triggers, for example) or by categories (environmental, regulatory, technology, or staffing, for example).

2.      Determine how these risks will be qualified and quantified

With risks identified and organized, the project manager should conduct a risk assessment. Each risk must be qualified and quantified. The project manager will use a probability and impact matrix to document the probability of each risk and the impact if it does happen. Remember, the quality of the data used in the assessment impacts its accuracy.

3.      Determine your organization’s risk tolerance

Every organization has a risk tolerance level, with variances due to the type of risk, the specific stakeholders of a project, and the scope of the project. Additionally, there are industries with negligible risk tolerance (such as health care) and others with an acceptance of some level of risk (like software development). While every organization has a risk tolerance level, so the project manager should get stakeholder input to determine risk tolerance for each project.

4.      Determine the final output format of the risk assessment

Within the risk management activities, determine during the risk planning process how the risk assessment output should be documented and communicated. Spreadsheet programs are often used for the ease of organizing large data sets. However, a company may have risk assessment output requirements, such as storing it on a secure server or capturing it in a shareable file, determining the output format. How the risk assessment output is documented is important because it determines how the information is made available to the project team and stakeholders.

5.      Create a plan to maximize the risk assessments applicability to every project

Within a risk assessment and the resulting risk response plan, project managers have a wealth of knowledge that can protect the active project and future projects.

Project managers should have a plan to document the risk assessment, the result of risk responses applied to risks that occur, and the risk assessment matrices with the appropriate risk parameters. Maintaining a consistent and detailed project documentation archive helps ensure a project’s lessons learned are available to other project managers with similar projects, which can reduce the impact of negative risks. The plan should include documentation format requirements, how assessment documentation will be accessed, and how the assessment (and reassessments) will be communicated to the project team and stakeholders.

6.      Create a final risk assessment that is flexible and scalable

Knowing the project manager and team will be doing reassessments throughout the project as part of risk reassessment, the process must be flexible and scalable. You may have to add risks throughout the project or incorporate other criteria to ensure the accuracy of the probability and impact scores. Additionally, the risk assessment should work for projects of different scopes. The risk assessment should be flexible enough to remain aligned with project changes and scalable enough to be used in multiple projects.

7.      Determine the process to update the risk assessment

PMP credential holders know the importance of risk assessment and reassessment in managing the project cost. Without a process to update risk assessments, the project is vulnerable when risks occur. Changes are inevitable, and a risk assessment that is not current is not effective. Project managers should have a consistent risk assessment update process within their overall risk management activities.

Risk Assessment Matrix

Risk management documentation, such as the risk assessment matrix, is part of the overall project management documentation. The risk matrix documents at least four core areas for each identified risk: (1) risk name, (2) probability, (3) impact, and (4) risk level/ranking. The risk assessment also includes the calculated overall Project Risk score (the project’s probability-impact, or PI, score). The risk assessment matrix is an output of the Risk Assessment process and an input to the Risk Response process.

In a risk assessment matrix, each identified risk is listed along with its corresponding information.:

RISK CATEGORY

  • Risk category: from a standardized list of risk categories (e.g., technology, natural disaster, regulations, transportation, etc.), the ones that most closely align with the project are used; not all projects have risks in all categories; therefore, each project will have a different combination of risk categories in its matrix

PROBABILITY

  • Probability criteria: used to assign the probability values for a risk category; criteria should come from a standardized list but customized for each project
  • Probability (“P”) score: a value given to each risk driven by the probability criteria; the matrix’s score scale will state the parameters for the minimum and maximum value of a P score; the project manager and project team use data and criteria to assign the P score to each risk

IMPACT

  • Impact criteria: used to assign the impact values for a risk category; criteria should come from a standardized list but customized for each project
  • Impact (“I”) score: a value given to each risk driven by the impact criteria; the matrix’s score scale will state the parameters for the minimum and maximum value of an I score; the project manager and project team use data and criteria to assign the I score to each risk

PROBABILITY AND IMPACT VALUES

  • Probability-to-Impact (“PI”) score: the Probability score multiplied by the Impact score results in the PI score; the PI score is the overall risk assessment score; the PI score is used to rank all project risks by lowest probability and impact to highest, so resources are assigned accordingly
  • Total Project Risk: all PI scores are added, and then that sum is divided by the quantity (total number of risks) of risks to determine the average; the project’s PI average value of PI scores is the Total Project Risk value.

Probability and impact are integral data points for risk assessment. Project risk tailoring occurs within the specifics of the risk categories, probability criteria, and impact criteria.

Risk Assessment Matrix Example

Project Manager Kestel’s PMI conference paper “Risk assessments—developing the risk assessment for your organization” includes an example risk assessment matrix:

From the completed risk assessment matrix, the project manager communicates the total Project Risk score to the team and stakeholders. Communication is part of risk assessment and helps ensure commonly understood terms are used for standardized risk assessment processes.

The risk matrix template ensures key data is consistently defined and included in the project documentation. For a risk matrix, project managers work with the project team and stakeholders to determine the specific risk criteria and refine the criteria for probability and impact. The format of the risk matrix should be determined early in the project and use company standards for project tools when available. The risk matrix should be stored with other project documentation, along with all risk reassessments for a project.

Risk Assessment Best Practices

Project managers should complete the risk assessment as part of their risk management activities for all projects. Best practices for risk assessment include:

  • Risk assessments should use quality data.
  • Risk assessments incorporate expertise and knowledge from the project team and stakeholders.
  • Risk data should undergo an audit to determine quality.
  • Risk reassessment is conducted frequently throughout the life of a project.
  • Risk assessments should use tailored and scalable tools.
  • Risk assessment results, including the overall project risk score, are communicated to the team and stakeholders.

Project Managers should:

  • lead the risk assessment efforts using standard tools
  • customize the risk assessment matrix to the specific needs of the project,
  • document the probability and impact of each risk,
  • use standard data and terms for risk audit efforts, and
  • communicate risk assessment progress and results to the project team and stakeholders.

Project managers should customize the risk assessment criteria to the project type. For example, you would not assess the risk of a particular weather event occurring using the criteria for the probability of manufacturing defects.

Additionally, project managers should use organizational templates and project management office (PMO) standards when available in their company. Customization of a project’s risk assessment should be balanced against the need for standards to contribute to knowledge sharing. No single tool will ensure quality assessment for all projects, but there are standards shared by all projects.

Risk Assessment PMP and Risk Reassessment PMP

To prepare for the PMP exam, students need to know the importance of risk assessment and how to use a probability and impact scoring matrix to help inform the priority of the risk. Students should understand that a risk assessment is a tool to help manage the project’s cost by closely monitoring highly probable and high (negative or positive) impact risks.

Summary

American billionaire fund manager and philanthropist Bruce Kovner is credited with saying, “Risk management is the most important thing to be well understood.” A project manager with the PMP credential has demonstrated knowledge of risk assessment and the role it serves within risk management. Remember these components of creating a risk assessment:

  1. identify applicable risk types and organize them
  2. determine how risks will be qualified and quantified
  3. determine your organization’s risk tolerance
  4. determine the final output format of the risk assessment
  5. create a plan to maximize the risk assessment’s applicability to every project
  6. create a final risk assessment that is flexible and scalable
  7. determine a process to update the risk assessment

Project Managers managing risk using a scalable risk assessment template and standard processes consistently have successful projects. In addition to earning PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, you may continue your certification journey by pursuing the PMI Risk Management Professional (PMP-RMP)® certification to advance your risk project management skills further.

Megan Bell
Megan Bell
Project Manager & Writer at Project Management Academy | + posts
Megan Bell