Identify Risks

With excerpts from my Project Management Novel, I will illustrate the many processes of the PMBOK.  Here is the ninteenth one: Identify Risks. Use this map to see how this process fits into the scheme of processes. 18 ID Risks

After supper, Fred, Bleddyn and Gwilym returned to the common room to conduct the Risk session. Fred nailed a parchment on the wall and set up quills and ink nearby. When the team had assembled, Gwilym addressed them. “We are gathered this evening to identify all the bad things, however unlikely, that could happen during this project. Things that could make the project take extra time or cost extra money. We have a way to sort these risks into those that we can ignore and those we need to deal with but that will be done during the next planning session. The goal now is to get as many ideas from as many people as possible.”

One of the more outgoing monks, who had been an active participant during the earlier planning sessions, spoke up, “It may rain for many days, making it impossible to dig the foundations.”

“Good!” said Gwilym, writing this down.

“Or there might be an extended freeze, causing the concrete to not cure.” This was the same monk.

Gwilym was shocked by the word concrete. “Do you have the recipe of the Roman concrete?”

The monks looked surprised. “Why, of course,” they replied.

A smile grew over Gwilym’s face who had assumed this recipe was forgotten in this country. “Excellent!” he responded. “What other risks?”

Two other monks chimed in with ideas:

“It could be unseasonably hot, forcing us to take refuge from the sun.”

“There could be high winds, blowing down the steeple before it is complete.”

“An earthquake!”

“Good,” said Gwilym, writing them all down. “What about risks other than weather to the project.”

They all thought for a while. Then the first monk spoke up again, “Fire in the village could spread to the new steeple.”

“Or fire could start on the job site.”

“Or fire could be in the village but that would make us have to leave the job and repair the village.”

It was the same three monks talking while the rest watched. Gwilym was getting concerned. He knew they were all bright but three were dominating the brainstorming session and the rest were standing there in silence. He tried calling on one of the quiet monks. “What about you, brother, what risks do you foresee?”

The quiet monk blushed red and mumbled that he was trying to think of one. Then the loud one chimed in with an idea about injury which started the other two with variations on this new theme. After half an hour of this, Gwilym tried a new strategy.

“I’m concerned that we are not getting the use of all the brainpower in this room. Friar Dan has many great ideas about risk and others are building on his ideas. But I feel that there are many other monks who are just as smart but are not speaking up, because they are more contemplative types who don’t like to shout out ideas in a crowded room.” Many heads nodded at this.

“So here is my new idea. I am going to point at you, one at a time, in the order you are standing around this room. When I do so, you either tell me an idea or say ‘Pass.’ I keep going around the room until I have had three circuits with everyone saying ‘Pass’ and that will indicate to me that the entire group is out of ideas.”

The monks first looked dubious but, after getting a nod from Abbot Crawford, they looked at Gwilym. Gwilym pointed at the first monk and received a risk. He pointed at the next and the next, receiving one risk after another. This worked for about three rounds until monks started saying ‘Pass.’

As more and more monks said ‘Pass’ on their turn and three or four monks always had new ideas, Gwilym sensed the discomfort in the room. Those who were saying ‘Pass’ looked sheepish at those who came up with new ideas. Some even rolled their eyes at the more outgoing types. Also, Gwilym suspected the quiet ones had ideas that they were just not willing to share in front of everyone. The session dragged with seventeen people saying an uncomfortable ‘Pass’ while three came up with increasingly rarer risks. It became a battle of wills with some refusing to speak and others refusing to stop.

Gwilym had that queasy feeling in his stomach when he knew he was publicly failing. He looked at Abbot Crawford who was pleading him with his eyes to call a halt. He took the hint and announced. “My good brothers, it is almost time for Compline. You have had a busy day. Why don’t you get ready for services? We’ll meet again tomorrow after Prime.”

There was an audible sigh of relief as they filed out of the room, leaving Abbot Crawford with Gwilym. Fred and Bleddyn started cleaning up the room and preparing for tomorrow.

“Ye are an excellent Project Planner, Gwilym!” remarked the Abbot. “I liked the way ye set out all our activities for the next nine months.”

Gwilym waited for the other shoe to drop.

“Is this the first time ye have tried to plan for risks?” asked the Abbot.

Gwilym smiled to himself. “Yes, father. And it doesn’t seem to be going that well. The outgoing monks are dominating the risk-gathering and I feel I am alienating the more introspective monks by trying to make them speak up. Have you any ideas?”

“Since I took over as Abbot, I have had one rule. Meetings are usually a waste of time. I have a technique I have used in the past to speed up meetings that I think it will work here. The monks call it the ‘Crawford slip’ technique. Why don’t ye try it?”

He explained the technique to Gwilym.

Gwilym was pleased at first but then he raised one objection. “But then they cannot build off each other’s ideas the way they are now.”

Abbot Crawford then explained the second phase and Gwilym’s fears were allayed. He thanked the Abbot and promised to try the idea on the morrow.


The next morning, as the monks filed in, Gwilym handed each a stack of ten small pieces of papyrus and a quill. There were ink jars standing around the room. They all smiled in recognition of the Crawford slip technique. When they were all ready with an ink-filled quill in their hand, Gwilym spoke:

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

The monks all wrote down a risk then looked back up at Gwilym. After half a minute had elapsed, he spoke again.

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

They all wrote another risk down on their second sheets. Another half minute elapsed.

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

They wrote down a third one.

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

At this point there were some groans but they all complied.

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

Some shook their heads, others racked their brains while pulling lower lips or fidgeting with their fingers but eventually, all wrote down another risk.

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

Gwilym heard groans of frustration but then saw ideas reach them as they scribbled on the pieces of paper.

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

More scribbling.

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

This time Gwilym saw some serious brain-wracking going on. Most wrote something down but some seemed stumped. Either way, after half a minute had expired Gwilym again told them:

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

There were some whimpers now from those who were one risk behind the others but they came up with ideas and scribbled down two in order to catch up.

“Write down one risk associated with building this steeple.”

All of the monks looked like they were dragging through the depths of their brains at this point but, one by one, they all wrote something down. During this entire session, the only person who spoke was Gwilym.

“All right, brothers. You know the drill. Put them on the table in groups without speaking.” Gwilym watched, fascinated. This technique was new to him. Twenty monks had come up with two hundred ideas in five minutes and were now sorting them out for him. Gwilym had understood the first technique and appreciated its efficiency. The Abbot had explained this second technique and Gwilym had asked why there was no talking allowed. Was it part of the monk’s code of silence?

Gwilym had liked the Abbot’s reply. “We have no code of silence on this island. During certain services we use silent prayer or monks may take the code for a period to feel closer to God. No, the silence during the Affinity Diagram session is designed so that everyone has an equal voice. That way, the more outgoing members are put on even footing with the quieter ones and cannot overpower them.”

He watched the technique in action. The first monk placed his risks down in groups of his choosing. The next monk placed his with the first monk’s groups. Some he placed on top of other risks. That was because they were essentially identical. Others were grouped due to obvious similarities, like weather, acts of God, etc. When the third and fourth monks added their risks, some of the groups were split or combined. By the time most of the monks had added their risks to the table, the original groupings were significantly different.

During the grouping, one monk moved a risk from one group to another, then a different monk moved it back. They were not allowed to speak so one mimed an action and would hold the risk next to some of the other risks in a group to show the similarity. Gwilym looked to the Abbot who smiled beatifically. After the risk had passed back and forth three times, the Abbot wrote the same risk on another sheet of papyrus and put one in each group. That seemed to satisfy the two monks.

When all the risks were placed, the monks looked in satisfaction at the Abbot. Gwilym glanced outside and realized that less than half an hour had passed and more than 150 unique risks had been identified and grouped in complete silence. He was impressed.

He thanked the monks and took some blank pieces of papyrus himself. “What is the name of this group?” he asked, pointing.

“Weather related risks,” they replied.

“Good!” said Gwilym, writing that on his piece of papyrus and placing that above the group. The monks named all the groups. Gwilym smiled the way their minds had all come to similar conclusions with each other’s risks.

“All right, brothers. My next step will be to write all these risks down on the risk register, then we’ll reconvene to decide how bad they are. That will take us some time. While that is happening, there is nothing stopping you from beginning the project. I’ll take you outside and get you set up while Fred and Bleddyn write down these risks. We should be ready for the Risk Qualification session after Vespers.”