Project Management Institute

Divide and conquer

VOICES | Peer to Peer

Is there a difference between priority and urgent risks?

Mushtaq Ahmed Syed, PMP: “Urgent” is not synonymous with “priority/important.”

“Priority” tells you how important a risk is and how much time you want to spend on it. This is independent of urgency and is what you want to do. “Urgency” tells you when you need to deal with it.

For example, you might learn a team member with specialized skills will leave the company in three months. You absolutely need to find a replacement, but you have three months to do it. Finding a substitute is a high priority, because your project will run into problems or fail if it's not taken care of. But it's not urgent—even if it takes you two months to find a substitute, nothing bad will happen.

Marian Haus, PMP: Both risk priority and urgency are qualitative dimensions of project risks.

By assessing risk priorities, project managers can identify and focus on high-priority risks. By appraising risk urgencies, project managers can ascertain the time left before measures or responses would need to be implemented. This is the main difference between risk priorities and urgencies: When treating risk priorities, the main focus is on impact; when treating risk urgencies, the main focus is on the measures or responses to be implemented.

How should project managers treat priorities versus urgencies?

Mr. Syed: Project managers should differentiate problems into four categories.

Tasks that are urgent and priority—issues, for example—must be worked on now. These are critical and support project goals, so you must make a decision to complete them.

Tasks that are urgent but not priority—watch-list triggers in a risk register, for example—tend to be generated by others. You don't want to spend much time on tasks not connected with your goals, so delegate them to a competent assistant.

Tasks that are priority but not urgent—risks, for example—need to be completed before they become urgent. Ensure you allow adequate time to do them.

Lastly, tasks that are neither urgent nor priority are probably not your responsibility anyway. Delegate them to a team member, but keep watch just in case they escalate in importance or urgency.

Mr. Haus: In my opinion, both deserve equal attention from project managers.

A common approach to assess priorities is a probability/impact matrix. Additionally, an impact/urgency matrix helps project managers focus on high-impact, immediate risks. Finally, a priority/urgency matrix can help project managers assess risk severity.


Source: PMI 2012 Pulse of the Profession

For example, “Our enterprise database servers will reach their disk size capacity during the project.” The probability would be “medium,” considering the data volume increase observed during the past 12 months. The impact would be “high,” considering this could lead to business interruption and financial loss. Finally, the urgency would be low, considering a response is needed in six to eight months.

The probability/impact matrix will rank this risk as a “high” priority, yet in the impact/urgency matrix, the “low” urgency will categorize this risk as one that will not require immediate action.


Mushtaq Ahmed Syed, PMP, is a software project leader at Continental Automotive GmbH in Wetzlar, Germany.


Marian Haus, PMP, is a technical project lead at BMW in Munich, Germany.

Can a risk be both a priority and an urgency?

Mr. Haus: Yes, consider this hypothetical example: A storm forecasted for next weekend can lead to power outages in a manufacturing line.

The probability is “medium,” considering this has happened a few times in past years, even though the power infrastructure is now more reliable. The impact is “high,” considering this could lead to a temporary production standstill. And the project team must verify immediately the status of the battery backup solution.

The probability/impact matrix will tell us this risk cannot be ignored, and the impact/urgency matrix will tell us this risk requires immediate action.

What's the danger in failing to distinguish between urgencies and priorities?

Mr. Syed: In large projects, there could be thousands of risks. If we don't clearly identify them, we will create chaos and nervous customers, managers and project teams.

The project manager will develop a sense of “everything is needed today” and multitask. Multitasking tries to please everyone and ends up pleasing no one. PM

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