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Thoughts from the staff of the UCL Centre for Systems Engineering


Exploring risk management

By Michael Emes, on 21 January 2015

At UCLse we are interested in managing risk in complex projects. It’s a topic that we cover in many of our courses in Systems Engineering, Technology Management and Project Management. But we are also interested on a practical level since we are part of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), responsible for the design and manufacture of instrumentation for scientific spacecraft for the world’s major space agencies.

This week I’ve been in the Netherlands with Prof Alan Smith delivering a training course to European Space Agency project managers. We ask the trainees to ‘imagine there’s a bear sitting on your shoulder reminding you to think about risk’.

Many people think that risk management revolves around the practice of producing risk logs or risk registers. At its worst, this view of risk management assumes that once a basic list of risks is compiled at the start of a project, risk management has been completed.

Done properly, though, risk registers can effectively summarise the range of risk events that might affect a project’s objectives, together with the probability and impact of the events, the ownership of the risks, the actions taken to mitigate the risks and the cost and effectiveness of the mitigation (how much risk will remain – the residual risk – after mitigation).

The risk register is a vehicle for communicating risk exposure within and outside the project team. But even here, the risk register is merely a window onto the risk management process. Risk events cannot really be represented by simple point estimates of probability and impact. Risks events are by definition uncertain and are best described by a range of possible outcomes, each with an associated likelihood. The risk register has a place as a simple summary for ease of communication, but does not tell the whole story.

One of our PhD students, Zakari Tsiga, is exploring the relationship between risk management and project success. The first part of his research is a survey of the critical success factors of projects.

If you’re interested in taking part in the survey, please follow this link:



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