Think in analogies to anticipate more project risks

Many people have trouble anticipating risks because their thinking is too literal. Some of the lessons learned from a previous project are lost because similarities are not recognized. Or lessons that could be pulled from projects in other industries are perceived as irrelevant. In this session, you will learn how to help others think conceptually in order to improve your odds of expecting the unexpected. You will receive a reproducible analogous thinking assessment as part of the handout.

Think In Analogies to Anticipate More Project Risks

One of the ways that psychologist Carl Jung divided people's differences in thought process was “sensing vs. intuition.” People in the intuition category are more adept at thinking in terms of concepts and analogies. Only one-fourth of the population has a preference for conceptual thinking (Hollister 1992). That means three out of four people you involve in a risk identification session will be relying almost exclusively on projects that were the same or very similar when identifying risks.

Similar projects are certainly the first place to find lessons learned that will help identify risks, but they miss the rich checklist of other areas that are available for consideration. Additionally, since every project is unique in some way, one must draw from a variety of project experience to anticipate as many potential problems as possible.

NASA is undoubtedly one of the top organizations in the world when it comes to risk identification. Yet the thought process in the final hours before launching the Challenger space shuttle failed to give enough consideration to the consequences of the freezing temperatures. “While there was considerable concern about ice on the equipment [the morning of the launch], there was seemingly little concern about the temperature. Thus, the potential O-ring problem did not appear to surface as a decision item” (Cleland 1998).

There were many reasons, from political to statistical, that the O-ring problem did not surface as a critical problem. The point is that there is always room for improvement when it comes to jumpstarting our mental checklist of things that could go wrong.

Believe All of Life's Lessons Can Apply

When you want people to broaden their thinking about potential risks, the first challenge is to help people believe they can glean ideas from unrelated areas. Make people aware of the creative leaps that have led to many of today's inventions. Point out to them that Velcro brand fasteners got their start after a man noticed burrs stuck to his dog. Researchers got inspiration for safer football helmets from woodpeckers. Rotary lawn mowers were the brainchild of Edwin Budding, who got the idea from a machine that removed the nap from cotton cloth in his textile factory (Towe 1996).

Start With a Warm-up

When your project team is ready to identify risks in a group brainstorming session, start them off with a brief warm-up. You might use a few questions from the game TriBond, in which you try to think of something that three items have in common. You will find more information and more sample questions at

Here are a couple of examples: What do Frito-Lay, IBM, and Caesar's Palace have in common? They all have chips. What do a student, a steak, and a steep road have in common? They all have grades.

Assess Your Team's Analogy IQ

As a participant in the live session, you will be given a written Analogy IQ Assessment. You may duplicate it for members of your project team. This will help demonstrate your desire to have team members pull from experiences beyond their past two projects.

Double the Output From the Same Risk Checklists

Finally, when you lead a risk identification session, have a checklist of categories to use as starting points. PMI's Project and Program Risk Management book has good generic checklists (Wideman, 1992). You can start with the typical areas of cost, time, performance, and scope and grow from there. If you already use a generic checklist of risk categories, or typically start by examining the lessons learned from a previous project, you can expect the warm-up and added emphasis on analogies to double your normal output of items that you identify as potential risks.


Cleland, David. 1998. Project Management Casebook. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Hollister, Pam. 1992. The People Process. San Diego, CA: Pfeiffer and Company.

Towe, Lee. 1996. Why Didn't I Think of That? Des Moines, IA: American Media Publishing.

Wideman, R. Max. 1992. Project and Program Risk Management. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA



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