What Is Risk Assessment?

Project managers know that the first step of good project management is stopping predictable failures from happening...predictably.


Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #353

What is risk assessment?

Along with risk management, it's one of those things that everyone should know.

Why? Simple—we all want things to go perfectly. We really do.

Case in point: Melvin was planning to build a replica of San Francisco constructed from 35,000 used Q-tips. It was going to be his magnum opus, his crowning achievement, and his excuse to buy Q-tips (a product he finds endlessly fascinating— I don't even want to know why). Best of all, it was going to be his wedding present to his fiancée, Bernice. She loves handmade crafts, and his creative juices were flowing.

Unfortunately, it takes more than creative juices to construct a replica of San Francisco. There are risks a-plenty. He got 13,261 Q-tips into the project, and discovered that his tiny Q-tip trolley car was positioned incorrectly. The car was occupying the space where Twin Peaks was supposed to go. We call that an "Oops."

We've all had “Oops” moments..

Failure Is Often Predictable

Many moons ago, I was part of a curriculum design team at Harvard Business School where I was charged with evaluating project management best practices to include in the MBA curriculum. Being rather fanatical about cool productivity tools (who'd have guessed?), I've happily used those tools and concepts ever since.

One striking best practice is a simple concept: Most projects fail for reasons you can predict in advance.

When a project is going on way too long, and bleeding money like a pit bull after a run-in with a porcupine, we just run to our boss and say, "I don't know what happened. Maybe it was space aliens that shot us with a time distortion ray and made everything take longer than expected."

Possible. Very, very possible. But no.

The real reason is that no one bothered to plan for the fact that every critical team member planned their summer vacation for a different week of summer. It blew up the team's ability to coordinate, and turned the 12 weeks of summer into 12 actual days of progress.

The bad thing is; we could have known that. Risk assessment could have told us that.

If the team had sat down during project planning and looked at everyone's availability, it might quickly have become apparent that we should try to match up our summer holidays. That way, we could all stop, go be holy, and then come back and tear up the project.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.