One simple question sure to start an honest risk discussion

How do you successfully and honestly prompt your stakeholders to open about their risk perspectives and perceptions? There has been, in recent years, a lot of discussion about how valid risk identification and analyses truly are to project management and its success. I firmly believe that if you don’t ask, you can’t know. Why not start with a simple question that can yield a lot of answers.

In the course of doing risk identification, we can often make our questionnaire too narrow or wide, which will lead to us not gathering as much or deep enough information. This can have the resulting effect of us being left open or vulnerable to areas of risk we have not thought of or even envisioned with the team. In general, most organizations tend to view risk identification as a much more involved process than it needs to be.

For those routinely performing risk management in the course of their project work, you will be aware of several tools that can be used in the context of risk identification, most will give you good results while others can be very biased or limiting and not generate what you need to continue with risk analysis.

For years, I have used a varied selection of brainstorming methods. I try to use methods that are tailored to the specific teams and stakeholders I am dealing with on that project. A quick search on-line can yield more than 250 different methods of performing brainstorming. There are lots of techniques to try and consider for your projects.

Have you tried brainwriting (where people brainstorm by writing their ideas on post-it notes without saying a word) or the de Bono six hats technique (where a change of color in a party hat dictates how you need to think of the problem at hand)? These exercises, to name a few, can work well if they are properly facilitated and managed, with a good understanding of the make-up of the groups you are using them with. Certain groups lend themselves better to these exercises while others can “clam up” or differ with a more vocal member of the group. This will open potential blind spots where risks can reside or hide without being detected for lack of being spoken or documented.

Interviewing leads to better and stronger data, in most cases, but it can be time-consuming and again very biased depending on who is in the interviewee seat or worst who does not get to be in that seat. You can expect to need more consolidation of your data as well as more analysis before you have results. Your information is only as good as your question set is and can be restrictive based on the pool of individuals used to gather it. Forget one person with specific insight, and you might miss out on areas of risks altogether.

Recently with the publication of the sixth (6th) edition of the Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), PMI® opted to drop the mention and use of the Delphi Technique from its tools list. I personally still use and love this technique when used on projects that have a depth of expertise that one can draw from. The Delphi Technique requires a bit more work on the part of the project manager but is more targeted to our subject matter experts. This can result in better, more subtle data faster as you are asking directly for opinions.

I want you now to think of a way to get better information, regardless of the tool that you use in order to prompt it. I have found that one of the best ways to get what I need is with the use of a direct, open-ended, yet a bit vague question. I use this question several times with all my stakeholders when doing risk identification. What question might you ask? A very simple one…

“What do you believe are the top xx risk(s) for this project?”

It cannot get simpler than this. 

So, you are probably wondering how such a simple method can provide greater results than more advanced techniques? Well, the main factor is that it puts it all down to a person’s perspective. You are asking for “their” opinion as opposed to having people be in-line with the groups’ view of the project or the risks at hand. This simple question is powerful enough to generate some of the best insights yet vague enough to allow an individual to give their view, their perspective and feel as if they voiced their opinion. People are more likely to open up and be truthful. They will tell you what they are most concerned with, which might not be what the rest of the people see. It also provides a means of getting a better sense of risk tolerance levels within a group or for that project.

This works well when you look at your stakeholder’s register and pick and choose several segments or groups to discuss risks with. You want to take this across as many of the groups as you can to get the greater possible results or the best view from the stakeholders’ perspective.

Once you have gathered the data, you can crisscross the segments and find where you have an agreement or when you have new information that has not been highlighted before.

It can be a way of unearthing parcels and bits of risks residing in areas that we would not necessarily think of or explore in other ways.

So, the next time you sit down to try to come up with a complex risk profile and questionnaire for your risk identification efforts, why not remember that simple might just be better. Be ready to reap the rewards from the insights gathered. You will still need to take the data, document it, and complete the risk management process, but you should have stronger data to start from and hopefully, less “blind spots.”

 

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