Using Brainstorming Techniques To Identify Project Risk


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Risk Management is part and parcel of effective Project Management but the identification and management of project risks are two completely different things.  Using brainstorming techniques at the project initiation stage ensures you are starting off on a sound footing. Managing those risks needs care and attention for the entire duration of the project.

Identifying risks can be straightforward if started correctly and needs to be well thought out and regularly updated.  People are used to brainstorming as an idea generation tool but it is equally useful for identifying potential project risks.

As with any tool it will only work provided it is used correctly so getting the basics right to start with is essential.

Small Group of Stakeholders

Even if you have a large project with numerous and wide ranging stakeholders it is important that an initial Risk Identification Workshop is restricted to a small number.  Choose those who will be full-time members of the project team, have key responsibilities, cover critical technologies and any commercial considerations.  Whether or not to include the client and/or suppliers can be a difficult one and will depend on existing relationships but their perspectives will be ones that should not be ignored.

Facilitated Workshop

The decision here needs to be who to use as a facilitator.  A good facilitator will ensure everyone contributes and that there is a route forward after the workshop.  If the Project Manager has the appropriate facilitation skills then that could be an option but it may be difficult for that person to step outside of their day-to-day role.  Others at the workshop may also feel that they are being unduly steered in a particular direction despite the Project Manager’s best intentions.  It is far better to bring in someone independent of the Project with an appreciation of project work and it allows the Project Manager to contribute fully.

Learning from Experience

Even with the best will in the world any brainstorming session can turn into a story telling exercise of what happened in similar circumstances.  The facilitator will need to give some direction anyway and it is best to capture potential risks based on similar projects and people’s related experiences first.  Such Learning from Experience (LfE) so often ends up as an un-read report but in this way it can very quickly be turned into something that will directly help a new piece of work.

Guiding and ‘Prompts’

Completely unrestricted brainstorming might be useful for creatively generating new marketing campaigns but when trying to identify potential risks on a project there must be some context provided.  Provided the facilitator has been able to discuss this with the Project Manager ahead of time then some appropriate labels or ‘Prompts’ can be used.  These need not be anything more directive than ‘External Risks’, ‘Technological Risks’ or ‘Commercial Risks’ but at least they allow people to consider these areas at a set time during the workshop.

There must be time set aside for real out-of-the-box thinking and allowing people to come up with risks that no-one has thought of before.  Make sure that the participants have had a short break after the more guided part of the workshop as it will allow them to start again afresh.

Risk Updates

Once Projects are up and running the register of risks must be kept up to date.  This is down to whoever has the task of managing the register in collaboration with individual risk owners.  Periodically it makes sense to look at the risks again and kill off those that are no longer relevant and identify new ones (if there are any).  There is no need to set up a separate workshop for this, it can be built into a routine project meeting provided there is time available and appropriate people attend.

In Summary

There is no perfect way to identify project risks but brainstorming, if carried out correctly, has the opportunity to capture the wealth of experience and knowledge that is in every project team.

You might also be interested in Ignore The Small Risks At Your Peril


3 thoughts on “Using Brainstorming Techniques To Identify Project Risk

  1. Hi Paul,

    This is a great article, I like where you went with the external facilitator, certainly in the role of business mentor, I find that staff senior or otherwise sit up and take more notice when a third party is conducting proceedings. It removes the potential for “perceived” hidden agendas, which, in Risk Management of Project Management situations can seriously hamper “buy in” from all concerned.

    I also like the use of “prompts” when running meetings like this as it does keep meetings on track or in focus, whilst not stifling idea generation, which by it’s very nature can take the meeting off into an all together different tangent and away from the objective.

    Many thanks for info, something I will keep in mind for the future!!

  2. Great post, Paul. I like your idea of having someone outside of the project to facilitate the workshops to guide and provide an outside perspective. Often in projects I have been involved in, it is my role as project manager to facilitate workshops where risks are identified, but having a separate facilitator lead so I can be more involved in the discussion makes a lot of sense. This is a great tip I will keep in mind for future projects.

    • Melissa,

      I’ve been in the same situation as you and while I’m happy to facilitate things it really does help to ask someone from outside the team to come along and help out.


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