How to Handle Risk When Managing an IT Project

Posted on Thursday, January 18, 2018

Risk management is a highly underrated part of project management. IT projects in particular can be quite risk-prone, but there can be hesitation to take protective action against them in a deliberate way. A risk is any uncertainty around an event that could influence your project in a positive or negative way. Of course, positive risks are usually called opportunities, however we’re focussing on the negative threats in this article.


Identifying risks before they occur leaves a lot of room to manoeuvre should problems arise. If you choose to launch into a project without factoring potential risks in, you can leave yourself open to unnecessary problems like security breaches or budget blowouts.


There are some steps you can take to avoid as many problems as you can (although it’s impossible to intercept every risk to your project). Let’s look at why it’s important to clarify your objectives before you even begin.


Identify objectives first


Risk management has its roots in clear communication. If the expectations of management are clear, then project coordinators are far more likely to complete tasks without cost overrun or delay. Ensure the project aligns with the strategic direction of the business as reassurance that it will remain supported through to completion. This is also important if you’re working with an external client or sponsor. While late changes may be suggested, they can often be avoided if the expectations are made clear and early.


Understand the scale


The risks that could influence an IT project vary wildly, and are primarily determined by the size and scale of the project. Small internal projects will face far different risks that ones that involve multiple stakeholders or are client-facing. When you’ve determined how complex the undertaking is, you can conduct a risk assessment.


Conduct a risk assessment


Once the scale and scope of the IT project have been established, it’s time to identify potential opportunities and challenges that could cause issues along the timeline. Having a clearly defined project with measureable objectives reduces a great deal of risk from the outset. Does your IT department have a risk management matrix available for use? If not, your company may have a risk management tool for use in other departments that may be co-opted for specific IT purposes.


Even if you don’t have a risk management tool to hand, you can create a simple one yourself. Measure each risk along two axes: the likelihood of the risk occurring, and the severity of the potential risk. Once the risks have been identified and categorised (this exercise should highlight any likely or potentially catastrophic risks), you and your team will need to determine how you will address them. There are three methods of doing so.


Addressing the risks


Accept the risk


Some threats may be very unlikely to occur, so you might elect to accept that level of risk and do nothing to prevent them from happening. Conversely, the risk may be so likely to occur that almost nothing could be done to stop it. Finally, you may choose to accept a risk if the cost of mitigating it or avoiding it may substantially change your project, or the costs would outweigh the benefits.


Mitigate the risk


This is the strategy we use every time we put on our seatbelts: we acknowledge the inherent risks of driving, but mitigate them by modifying our behaviour. It doesn’t impact the quality of the driving or slow us down, but it does go a long way toward harm reduction.


Mitigating known risks for an IT project is essentially an identical process. When threats are identified that are likely to occur, you can take action to protect against them. If you know that your project may be valuable to malicious actors, it makes sense to provide as much cyber security as possible. This won’t impact the integrity of your project but will help to protect it.


Taking these kinds of actions is also called minimising your exposure to risk. This could mean altering plans or providers, for example. You may need to seek more information, build in additional protections, limit the distribution of sensitive data or adjust a timeline. Be aware that making changes can create a new set of risks to be dealt with, too.


Mitigating risk can also come in the form of having active recovery plans in place, for when a forecast risk comes to fruition. Depending on the profile of the threat, you may be able to design a plan or checklist that can be deployed as soon as the threat is realised. Streamlining reaction times can minimise harm and reduce costs. If the threat is fast-moving, a checklist also reduces hesitation, confusion and the tendency for steps to be missed during urgent decision-making processes.


Avoid the risk


Avoiding a risk entirely can be difficult to do, because it can call for a redirection of resources, planning or time. Taking action to avoid a risk could mean changing direction, cancelling the project, additional hiring, non-budgeted overtime, or new or different technical demands. For example, if there is a risk that a project will be delivered catastrophically late, staff may need to work overtime or be reassigned from other projects to avoid that risk being realised. This strategy is plausible and can be deployed where required, but it’s often much easier to plan for and mitigate risks ahead of time where possible.


Risk management may feel like one more administrative task to be completed before launching a project, but it’s genuinely vital to the success of your effort. Knowing the challenges you could face gives you an advantage that should not be overlooked.

About Mustard IT, your cyber security partner

Mustard IT provide the design, build, and installation of secure IT servers and networks, and can help you negotiate risk management processes. Our trusted team are experienced and able to explain complex issues to you in a language you’ll understand. Contact us today to find out how we can help you.