GPM First
Chapter 5 of A Short Guide to Facilitating Risk Management (978-1-4094-0730-0) by Penny Pullann and Ruth Murray-Webster

Risk Workshops


Workshops are just part of the risk process, but they’re a very important part, which we’ll cover in this chapter.


Why are workshops so important? They are where representatives of different areas get together. In a workshop, you are able to generate ideas as a group, build consensus and agreement, and come up with decisions. Often, you can sort out differences and misunderstandings immediately. If you design your process well, you can build shared ownership of outcomes. In workshops, people can be listened to, feel heard by others and give voice to concerns. When people have the opportunity to work together on outputs, workshops can be so much more than dumping grounds of all of the risks that people could dream up individually. In a workshop, there’s a chance to deal with different perceptions of what is risky and why. You can also challenge any bias that can so easily occur, such as ‘groupthink’ or other sources of bias as covered in Appendix A in Chapter 2. All of these workshop benefits will only come with good facilitation.

Workshops can work very well as part of the process. But they’re not the whole process. Many people try to do everything as a workshop, whereas a mixture of larger workshops, small sub-groups and one-to-one work is more likely to be successful. See Chapter 4 for our recommendations on how to create the right mix.

Workshops give us an opportunity to do something different and creative, to break out of what has been a formulaic way of dealing with risk in many organisations.

Here’s an example of a successful, half-day risk workshop that is still having an impact:

Tony, who works in local government in Wales, recalled a risk identification workshop for the regeneration of Cardiff Harbour. It lasted half a day but is still having a positive impact ten years later.

He talked through how they got it right. ‘We brought in external facilitators and had a good range of stakeholders present. We came up with a huge range of risks, from World War II unexploded bombs to alien invasion!’ Tony went on to explain that alien invasion didn’t mean little green men from Mars, but rather the possibility of the ecosystem in a new freshwater lake getting out of balance. This could mean plagues of midges and other small insects, which would spoil the new environment for local people and visitors, including wedding guests nearby. Tony described how they set aside funding, which allowed them to reduce this risk by stocking the lake with fish and injecting insecticide into mud to kill off midge larvae. A few years later, the risk became an issue (the risk actually occurred) and further measures were needed.

Now, Cardiff Bay has been visited by teams from as far afield as Venice, Korea and the USA as a case study for controlling alien invasion. Tony has continued to be committed to risk. He’s found the way to keep risk alive in his authority. ‘With the right people, who all care about what we’re doing, it’ll stay on the agenda!’


That workshop certainly worked for Tony. How can you make yours as successful?

Let’s look at risk workshops in three parts:

  1. The work you do beforehand to prepare for a workshop.

  2. Running the workshop itself.

  3. How you can get actions completed after the workshop is over.


Preparing for a Workshop

First of all, agree the objectives of this particular workshop with your senior manager and be clear on the benefits of doing this work together. Remember that the workshop is just one part of a bigger process. It helps to explain a clear vision of what’s important and why, as well as the benefits of doing this workshop.

Are there any issues, conflicts or politics that you should know about which could affect this workshop? These are likely to be sources of risk too.

The key question to answer for workshops is: ‘What is the point?’ What is the purpose of running this particular workshop at this time? Make sure that’s really clear and stated in any invitation.

Who Should Be There and for Which Parts of This Workshop?

Not everybody needs to be there for the whole time. You might want some specialists to come in just for a small part of the session. How many people should be there? It’s often good to get representatives of different areas concerned and you’ll find guidelines for who should take part in a variety of types of workshop in Chapter 4. Remember too that workshops become less efficient with large numbers. Think through who you need to make this part of the process work, and make sure you have people from the right levels within your organisation, as well as the right number.

What Roles are Needed for an Effective Workshop?

There are at least three:

  1. There’s the risk facilitator, who facilitates the meeting. As such, their role is to stay out of the details of the content. They need to be able to challenge people about their perception of risks.

  2. Timekeeper: It helps to appoint someone else to keep an eye on how much time is left and how you’re progressing through the agenda. Their role is to keep you on track.



  3. A recorder (or scribe) can capture the output, including decisions and actions, so that they can be shared immediately afterwards.


What About the Timing of the Workshop?

How long should the workshop last? There is always a balance to strike between maintaining energy, and making maximum use of the time that people can be together. There are some creative options you can use to get this balance right. Chapter 4 has much more to say on this, including some tips on how many risk workshops may be needed to cover the whole risk management process.

What Are the Objectives?

What do you want to have achieved by the end of your risk workshop?

Is There any Preliminary Work that Should be Done?

As the facilitator you will want to prepare carefully. Do you have enough resources available, including an appropriate room or an effective virtual meeting tool? Have you thought about lessons that have been learned on similar workshops in the past? For each particular workshop, you can check for the inputs you’ll need from previous parts of the process, as shown in Chapter 4.

How Well do People Coming to this Workshop Understand Risk?

Their understanding may be very basic. Often people will require a quick reminder of the basics as laid out in Chapter 2.

What about the Diversity of the Group?

Do you need to plan carefully in this area? For example, if you have somebody who is known to be very loud and you have others who are likely to be very quiet, how will you handle that? What about people at differing levels of seniority within the organisation? If you have a mixture of hierarchies in the room, it’s important not to ignore this as it will affect the dynamics in the room. One option is to form small, mixed groups that then feed back to the whole workshop. Another option is to use some forms of anonymous input.

What about the mixture of professionals? For example, engineers and marketing specialists often behave quite differently in workshops. What about cross-cultural issues? These can be as much between organisations as well as between people from different countries. There are many things that influence people’s attitude to specific risks. Thinking how you will deal with diversity in advance will help you prepare for a great workshop.

What about Hidden Agendas?

Are there likely to be any? Plan to find these out beforehand to uncover other aspects of politics which could affect your workshop. If you’re fairly new to risk facilitation, check with somebody experienced to make sure that nothing has been missed.

There is one element of workshops that is usually left out, although its inclusion makes a big difference. This is to set very clear rules, or ways of working, and agree them at the start of the workshop. These are sometimes called ground rules. They give you a chance to anticipate problems and address them up front before the problems occur. By anticipating problems in this way, the risk facilitator has much more chance of a successful workshop. Some examples of ground rules include:

  1. How people will use mobiles and laptops. A common rule here is to keep mobiles on silent and laptops closed during the workshop sessions, but not breaks.

  2. Respecting confidentiality. Which aspects of the workshop need to be kept secret and why? You might agree to allow all information to be shared, but keep the name of the contributor anonymous, as an example.

  3. One tip that I find very useful is to write down ‘spellling dusn’t mattter.’ It normally raises a laugh and takes the pressure off anybody who is writing in public.


Think about How Actions Will be Recorded Accurately during the Workshop

How are you going to keep track of them? Can the scribe write them out? If somebody is going to type them into a computer, can you make them visible to everyone in real time? How are you going to make sure that everyone is clear on the next steps? How will you follow up to make sure actions are done after the workshop?

Make Sure you Issue an Invitation to the Appropriate People

Do this well in advance of the workshop. This should contain the purpose of the meeting, the objectives, the agenda, who is participating and include links to any preparatory information. Ensure that all the other resources are available for the day, from the meeting room to the materials you need.

Workshop Environment

Where will you hold the workshop? How can you create the right atmosphere? Think of all five senses, and how you can create a good environment in terms of:

  1. Sight: Natural light keeps people much more alert than fluorescent light, so avoid dark basement rooms. Make sure that everyone can see any shared material, such as recorded risks and actions. Can you share these on-screen for remote participants?

  2. Sound: The best background for effective work is a quiet and peaceful room away from traffic noise and free from loud air-conditioning. With virtual working, a clear audio-conferencing line is absolutely essential. Make sure everyone can hear all the contributions easily. People may need to mute their line when not speaking to ensure a clear line for all.

  3. Touch: Are the chairs comfortable? Are the tables clean?

  4. Taste: Have you provided some food to keep people going? Fresh fruit or nuts are more effective than biscuits and cakes as they avoid a sugar high and the subsequent crash.

  5. Smell: Is the room stuffy after a previous meeting? Can you open the windows?


During the Workshop

We recommend that you have a plan for your risk workshop, with processes and resources in place from start to finish. However, facilitated workshops seldom run to plan! You have to be prepared to divert if your initial plan doesn’t work quite as well as you had hoped. If you’ve prepared well, and have a range of options, then things are likely to run much more smoothly.

Before you begin, you might find it helpful to kick off your workshop with a senior sponsor or manager summarising why this particular workshop is important to your organisation.

At the start of a workshop, run through all the steps shown in Figure 5.1. If you’ve prepared carefully, and communicated carefully with everyone beforehand, this should just be a reprise for everyone. It provides the group with the opportunity to have their input and if necessary make changes.

Figure 5.1 A summary of steps to start up any workshop (used with permission)


  1. We are here to: What’s the purpose of your workshop today? Once this is agreed, display it so that everyone can see it. This will help you keep on track.

  2. Today we will: What do you want to achieve by the end; what are the objectives for the meeting?

  3. Our plan: What is the agenda? What happens when?

  4. Who’s doing what: What are the roles and who will play them? Choose a timekeeper and a scribe at this point of the meeting if you haven’t already done so.

  5. How we work together: What are the ground rules? This step is very important to anticipate problems and to make it clear how the workshop will run.

  6. What’s next: Talk about how actions will be captured and followed up.


Introduce Risk Management

Run through the key risk concepts needed for this particular workshop at the start, so that everyone is clear.

How Do You Keep to Time?

The facilitator needs to strike a balance between the needs of some to go into detail and the time available. For example, in a workshop that is planning responses to previously identified and prioritised risks, you may need to intervene to stop too much discussion about lower priority risks. Our experience is that people can get carried away discussing risks they care much about, but which in the greater scheme of things don’t warrant the air-time. These could be low probability/low impact risks for example. The facilitator has a crucial role here to move the group along, while at the same time acknowledging the importance of the risk to the people involved. Here’s an example:

We’ve spent the last hour discussing risks in the Human Resources area. We have five other areas to cover today. Should we continue in HR and schedule a further workshop for tomorrow for the others, or should we move on now? What’s your view?


How Do You Stay Calm as Facilitator?

Although it’s critical for the process to have energy, the facilitator needs to find a way of remaining calm throughout. The very nature of workshops is that you cannot predict what will happen. To prevent unexpected situations getting to you, it’s useful to have tactics for staying calm.

At the start, you might find it helpful to ‘anchor’ your mind to a successful workshop in the past. Remember that you don’t always have to be busy doing or saying something. Often quiet thought, rather than a quick response, will stand you in good stead. You really need to be able to manage your own ‘state’ as a facilitator, staying centred and effective, even when things get tough.

One helpful way of doing this is to reflect back what you see happening in the group, rather than taking it upon yourself to ‘fix’ the group. Remember that the group owns the risks and the group owns the results. The facilitator doesn’t. The group can decide what to do as a result. It takes the pressure off the risk facilitator. This technique has been important for Penny as she moved from working with small project groups to large international programmes of change.

What Do You Do during the Workshop if it All Goes Horribly Wrong?

Risk facilitators are often anxious about things going wrong in their sessions and wonder what they would do. Of course, things often don’t go as planned. One obvious tactic if things take a turn for the worse is to take a short break. This is often quite as much of a relief to the group, as to the facilitator. Often, a simple chat with people individually will put the workshop back on track. Try not to be ‘in control and in charge’ but facilitate the group to do their best. The biggest mistake you can make is to behave as if it’s your workshop and you own the outputs. This isn’t true, as it is the group’s workshop and they own the outputs. It would be far better to acknowledge the issues and ask the group for their suggestions. If you are concerned about failure, read through Chapter 6 and make sure you’ve covered the potential pitfalls of risk workshops.

How Are You Going to Gather Input?

You might want to do use brainstorming. A crucial ground rule for gathering a large number of ideas in this way is to make sure that all contributions are constructive, rather than negative or critical. It’s the facilitator’s job to ensure this by challenging anyone who comes up with negative comments at this early stage. The group will be able to judge all the contributions once the creative part is over.

Another good way of gathering input is to encourage people to share lessons learned from previous work.

Use the fact that you will have more than one workshop. The time in-between workshops is ideal for the participants to go away and come back with thought-through ideas to the next step.

Use Anonymous Input to Good Effect

You can use anonymous ways of gathering input to get the widest possible range of ideas. This works especially when you have a wide range of people with different levels of power in the organisation, or when people prefer not to speak controversial ideas out loud. In a face-to-face meeting, you can ask people to write on Post-it™ notes and stick them up. In virtual meetings, use a tool or a third party to gather input from each participant in an anonymous way.

Another way of gathering risk ideas face-to-face is to cover a table with paper. Give everyone a set of pens of the same colour and ask them to stand around the table. Write the question in the centre. For example, ‘What are all the risks that might happen to this project?’ Ask everybody to write down everything that come to mind. Then get the group to move slowly around the table adding on further comments until they return to where they started. This is a very quick way to gather a large number of ideas from a group.

Figure 5.2 is an example used to gather issues people face in risk workshops as part of the research for Chapter 6 (thanks to the Association for Project Management Programme Management Specific Interest Group).

Figure 5.2 A group map built by APM members about the issues they face with risk workshops (used with permission)




Penny used the group mind-map technique where she only had 20 minutes for a workshop on a major programme. When she joined the programme, it had a mantra: ‘We have a thousand ways to fail, but we proceed valiantly.’ The first thing Penny did was to spend all 20 minutes running a risk identification workshop. You should have seen the relief on the faces of the people involved, as they realised that the risky areas had actually been identified and were going to be investigated. They wouldn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweats as they thought of yet more unidentified risks ever again!


Visible Information

It can be very helpful for groups to see what they’ve been talking about. So how can you make the discussion visible to people? Penny uses techniques of recording words and pictures to make sure that all the ideas are visible to the whole group. An example of this might be each person writing down their own ideas on sticky notes and then presenting them in clusters on a wall. Alternatively, the risk facilitator or scribe can write down risks on a flipchart, board or shared screen as they are raised.

Team Stages

It’s good practice to make sure you are aware how teams form: the common stages that all teams go through. One way of understanding this is by using the Tuckman Team Development Model. This predicts four stages in turn:

  1. Forming: where the team come together;

  2. Storming: where people jostle for position;

  3. Norming: where people begin to settle down into group ‘norms’; and finally,

  4. Performing: where the team work together effectively.


Knowing that these stages are going to happen, it makes sense to include introductions to help the team form and ground rules to help the team to ‘norm’. Facilitators who know that ‘storming’ will come before ‘norming’ will expect some disagreements and want to resolve these to move on. For the team to really ‘perform’, the facilitator must help to create a productive atmosphere where people bring their energy to the task in hand.

It’s helpful to be aware of a range of models, because different models have elements which work better in different situations and which highlight different aspects of team working. No model is completely right on its own in all situations. Another that we’ve used to good effect is the Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model. We particularly like this model as it makes it very clear that team performance depends on establishing good foundations for team working at the start of the workshop. It shows clearly how the team need to be clear on their purpose and to build trust before clarifying goals and gaining commitment. Only then does action follow, and possibly high performance. The model uses the analogy of a bouncing ball: the more effort put in upfront, the higher the ball will bounce.


Be aware of conflict. In fact, you should expect it. Conflict just means that there are some disagreements, which mean that there are different perspectives. Use them, don’t hide them. You get better decisions when there has been some element of this ‘task’ conflict.

However, you don’t want to have personal relationship conflict or fights breaking out within your risk workshop (or even small nuclear explosions!). It’s not usually a major problem, but if this does happen, you’ll need to sort it out immediately. To do so, highlight what you see happening, rather than ‘sweeping it under the carpet’ and hoping it will go away. It won’t. Refer people back to the ground rules that you set up at the start of the session and ask them to abide by the agreed rules. You may need to come up with some new ground rules as a group to deal with any issues. Consider calling a break and talking with the individuals concerned. Remember to stay neutral and to focus on what you can see and hear, rather than judgements and inferences. Another useful to tip is to ‘be hard on the issue yet soft on the person’. Keep the group focused on the work issue at hand and not on personalities. If you know that relationship conflict is likely to arise, you’ll need to prepare even more thoroughly than usual, carefully discussing issues with the people concerned. It may help to bring in an experienced facilitator, who will have experience and training in conflict management.

Working Virtually

Many people are called upon to run risk workshops virtually. This means that the group works together while they are separated geographically. These virtual meetings can work very well using conference call or video conferencing, with shared screens or a remote collaboration system. You’ll need to spend even more time in preparation than in face-to-face meetings. It’s also best to use a facilitator who is skilled at remote facilitation.

Try to keep your virtual workshops short (an hour is plenty). This means you may need to split each workshop into several remote sessions. Remember, too, that detailed information is best shared outside the workshop through e-mail or shared databases. As risk management can get very detailed, this helps to prevent people becoming overwhelmed during the workshop itself. (This tip also works for face-to-face workshops!)

It’s even more of a challenge to keep people engaged and involved when your workshop is virtual. Ask people for their comments throughout the workshop to keep them involved. (Incidentally, it’s a good idea to let people know that you’ll be doing this at the start, so that there are no surprises.)

Another tip to help people connect is to provide a photo map: a map showing the geographic location of each person, along with their photo.

When working virtually it’s important to build up the trust and commitment of each individual in the team. The key to this is to have one-to-one conversations outside of the risk workshops. If possible, hold the first workshop in a series face-to-face. This will help build the relationships that will sustain the group over the rest of the risk management process.

Vinit, a project manager based in the Middle East, told us his story of facilitating across several countries in Asia:

When we held risk identification workshops, no one would speak up! What changed this was putting in a lot of time individually with people to build trust and to design a more anonymous way for people to contribute. This was the best way to overcome the limitations of the strong need to save face.’


There are more tips on virtual working and a link to resources to help you at the book’s website:

Make Sure that Actions and Decisions are Clearly Agreed and Documented

This should happen during the session and then be circulated as quickly as possible afterwards. What is going to be done by whom and by when? The right place to document the outputs is almost always the risk register. Unfortunately, this is all too often a dead document, gathering dust, rather than the central repository for all risk based decisions. There is no need for detailed minutes, as these are likely to remain unread. Agree how the actions will be followed up and how will they be reported back to the group.

How Can You Check Whether People are Likely to Do Their Actions?

Ask them about their intentionality – this is the strength of their intent to carry out each action. Penny uses a scale of one to ten and asks people at the end of workshops to report how likely they are to get each action done. If they’re unsure that they will be able to do the actions, then she adjusts the action. Surely it is far better to have an imperfect action that’s completed, than a perfect one that isn’t?

Lessons Learned

While many organisations talk about ‘lessons learned’, too often these become lessons filed away or even lessons forgotten. What a waste! The risk facilitator can ensure that their risk workshops improve over time by identifying lessons learned with their groups during risk workshops and then agreeing actions to take in future workshops as a result. This can be done as simply as taking five minutes each to explore ‘what went well’ and ‘I wish that … .’ (Framing things positively is a much more powerful way to learn than ‘what went wrong’.)

After the Workshop

It’s very important to share actions and decisions as quickly as possible. Penny likes to take photographs of outputs written up in face-to-face meetings and share them immediately rather than have the details typed up, as these provide a strong visual reminder on top of the formal risk register.

How Are You Going to Follow up on Actions?

Without follow up, actions tend not to happen. Follow up is ideally discussed and agreed at the end of the workshop, before everyone leaves. Ideally, your actions can be added to your project, programme or operations plan immediately after your workshop, as well as to your risk register, so they’ll be tracked as part of day-to-day work.

How Will You Keep Risk Management Alive for the Rest of the Process, Following the Workshop?

One way is to ensure that you have identified owners of different risk areas. How will you engage these people going forward? Too many risk identification workshops end up with a completed risk register that is subsequently forgotten about. While this may tick boxes for audit or compliance, it is of no practical use. As the risk facilitator, it’s your job to bring energy and life into the process.

You’ll need to feed information back to managers in your organisation, your project sponsor and/or the board if appropriate. How will you do this?


Risk workshops are an inevitable part of the risk management process. Sometimes workshops will take place face-to-face. At other times, the group will be working together from different locations, using tools to support virtual working. It’s essential to prepare in advance to ensure you have the best chance of a successful workshop. Facilitating workshops well is an art, and experiencing good risk facilitation is very different from reading it in a book. You will find more helpful hints, tools and templates when you sign up for them at this book’s website at, as well as ongoing updates on our work.

In the next chapter, we will run through a range of potential pitfalls for your risk facilitation work, giving you hints and tips to help you avoid them.



Drexler, A., Sibbet, D. and Forrester, R. (1994) The Team Performance Model, San Francisco: The Grove Consultants International.


Tuckmann, B.R. (1965) ‘Developmental Sequence in Small Groups’. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384–99.

Recommended books


Weisbord1, W. and Janoff, S. (2007) Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter, San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


Hunter, D. (2007) The Art of Facilitation: The Essentials for Leading Great Meetings and Creating Group Synergy, (2nd edition), Auckland: Random House.


Schwartz, R.M. (2002) The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches, (2nd edition), San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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