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Communicate Risks Effectively – How to Visualise Risks by Project Stage

Measuring and evaluating risk requires a vast amount of data capture and analysis, but how to you communicate this effectively to stakeholders in a clear and concise manner that inspires confidence? PMO expert and principle consultant at Bestoutcome, Tim schmeising-Barnes, walks you through an effective 5 stage process for effective data visualisation.

One of the issues I always had with risks was the sheer volume of information that is RELEVANT to any risks.

Start with the data to evaluate the risk - Severity; Likelihood; Controllability – multiply by the 3 phases – Initial; Current; Target – and add all of the relevant information about Status, Impact, Trend, Cost, Weighted Cost, Response Type, Mitigation, Risk Owner, Raised By, Date Raised, Completion Date, etc. and you can easily exceed 50 fields (try it yourself and see).

Let’s put that in Excel terms, each risk has columns A to AZ (and possibly more). Even using A3 paper, that’s not printable.

Get down to 20 columns and it’s still unwieldy and 10 columns means you are lacking key information.

So, risk logs are great for capturing all that juicy risk information but not so great for easily understanding the whole risk profile.

A PM3 Risk Matrix grid

The answer is two-fold. Firstly, risks need many different perspectives or views (what’s urgent, what’s important, are we managing the risks, which areas are highest priority, etc) and, secondly, it’s really useful to have visualisations to show what is happening.

With a chart or graph you can quickly convey general trends (getting better or worse) as well as more nuanced information (rate of change, key areas of concern, etc).

A side benefit of using visualisations comes from the psychology of looking at charts and graphs and drawing conclusions from them.

Because the viewer will interpret the images you give them, they will have greater confidence in the conclusion (assuming that the data supports your conclusion!).

There are many different visualisations available and they all have pros and cons but there are a few general guidelines:

  1. Keep it simple – easy to build, easy to update and easy to understand will go a long way to getting the message across
  2. Be consistent – finessing that perfect report is compelling but remember that changing something that the audience has got used to can reduce the confidence they have in your comms
  3. Ask a 10-year-old child if they understand it. Before you dazzle your audience with your visual masterpiece, check that someone who knows nothing about what your doing can understand it and will draw the same conclusions.

Different visualisations at different stages

The definition and treatment of risks is fairly consistent throughout the project lifecycle but the ways of depicting your risks can and should change as you move through different stages.

Below are some suggested approaches. Referring back to rule 1 (above), you probably won’t want to use all the examples but they give you some ideas to choose from.

Stage 1 (Initiation)

Initiation stage

When you start, it’s a great time to establish your core visuals. These should be simple to create but convey enough information to keep people informed.

Here we have some standard measures to give the audience an overview of how risk is being managed. Note a few stats to accompany the charts and give extra information.

These visuals say “we have risks under control” which allows the discussion to focus on key

Stage 2 (Design)

Design Stage data capture

Important is not the same as Urgent. A Risk Proximity chart is a great way of focussing on what needs attention now and what can wait.

With time (and change of project scope) some risks may even just go away! The key date is the date when action is needed, not when the risk will impact the project!

Stage 3 (Development)

Development stage data capture

By the 3rd stage, you will start to have valuable historic information. At this point Trend analysis is really useful to help show confirm predictions.

Prior to this stage, the fluidity of the project makes it hard to have a good baseline for any measures but by now the scope and plan should be more stable and the risks likewise.

Look for 2 key trend measures, current RAG vs initial RAG and current RAG vs last month.

Stage 4 (Validation/launch)

Validation stage data capture

Stage 4 is about getting everything right for operation. At this point nice simple countdowns and checklists show that the outstanding risks are diminishing and (hopefully) everything is heading to Green ready for a successful launch.

Stage 5 (Closing)

Closing stage data capture

And finally, Close. At this point you should have closed or transferred risks to new owners until the only risks left are related to the benefits realisation.

You might also want to create some graphics to show the way risks were managed eg number of risks that became issues, average mitigation time, red risks actioned, etc.

Design your own visualisations

risk graphic

Most of the examples shown are fairly standard risk visualisations which makes life simpler for everyone. However, a custom graphic can be a quick and effectively way of keeping stakeholders informed.

Here is an example where the distribution and rating of risks across different categories can be summarised using simple icons, variable size and 3 colours.

So goodbye Risk Register?

Your trusty risk register is still critical for all of the data you need but with some good visualisations it needn’t be the primary way you communicate risks to your stakeholders.

Our PPM Tool, PM3

Bestoutcome’s tool, PM3, provides the functionality for PMOs to capture and monitor risks in a risk regsiter. Risks can also be visualised by viewing the PM3 risk matrix.

PM3 is a tool that has been built by practitioners for practitioners.

For more information on Bestoutcome’s simple but scaleable PPM tool, please contact us on or visit our website to view our PPM / PMO tool, PM3:

About the author

The author - Tim Schmeising-Barnes

Tim Schmeising-Barnes - Tim has spent a 30+ year career in portfolios, programmes and projects, mostly working for large global organisations. As well as involvement in the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Change Management Institute (CMI), he has also been involved in some global PPPM standards.

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