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PM Tips and Techniques Corner

PMIGLC Article 2 - Risk: The Affinity Diagram

By Hans Jonasson, PMP

In my discussions with other project management professionals, I often hear about issues and problems in their environments. While many of them have unique problems, they also have some common treads. One subject I hear brought up quite often is ‘Risk’. When we talk about risk in a class everyone intuitively knows that it is important, but at the same time everyone struggles with it. This article explains a simple approach to getting started with identifying and organizing risks for a project.

Sometimes people struggle because they either state only a few obvious risks, or they come up with a large number of risks but then don’t see how to attack the list once it’s created. A good approach that will create a comprehensive list of risks and also get them organized is the 2-step approach of brainstorming and affinity diagramming. Most of you are probably familiar with brainstorming, but maybe not with affinity diagramming. Like many good tools it is a fancy name for something relatively simple. Affinity diagramming groups related items together, thereby creating structure.

Step 1 is the team brainstorming session. Like in any brainstorming session, you want to have a focused session with a well-defined topic such as: “What can go wrong when we upgrade our Account Payable system?” You want as many ideas as possible and you don’t want to criticize any of them. Some people will set a rule that: ”there are no stupid ideas”. Well, let me tell you, there are a lot of stupid ideas. But, often by building on someone’s not so bright idea, we get synergy and a great idea is created. At the end of the brain storming session, you may have a list of 50-100 (or more) risks. Each of these should then be document on it’s own stick-it note and put up on a board.

Step 2 uses affinity diagramming. In the purest form of affinity diagramming you have the brain storming team, working in silence, starting to review all the risks that are posted. The team then moves the risks around and places them next to other risks that seem to be related (thus affinity diagram). After working on this for a while, the result is a number of general groups of risks. You can then review each group and give it a descriptive title. These become your risk categories, or your basic structure.

The thought behind doing the affinity diagramming in silence is to avoid undue influence from the more opinionated team members. Many teams choose to disregard the silence portion and that actually tends to speed up the process.

You can then assign responsibilities of the categories to different groups (finance, design team, etc.), as well as prioritize the groups. Looking at the groups and matching them against the key objectives of the project can often do this for you.

So, next time you are targeted with identifying risks for your project, consider taking it one step further and create an affinity diagram as well. It can often help you build structure out of a massive number of thoughts.