How to Build the Best Risk Matrix for Your Capital Projects

Doug Vincent
Doug Vincent
May 3, 2024

Capital projects are always high-risk undertakings. As a client-side project manager, you could expect disruptions from all fronts, such as project delays, budget overruns, or sudden changes in market conditions. All these risks can throw even the most carefully planned project off course.  

A risk matrix helps you assess and rank a risk, helping you anticipate and chart a path around those potential hazards. It's a tool that empowers you to make proactive, informed decisions about high likelihood, high impact risks, protecting your project's timeline, budget, and, ultimately, its success.

This comprehensive guide will walk you through building a reliable risk matrix and help you decide which one between a 4x4 or 5x5 risk matrix is best for your capital projects.

What is Risk Matrix?

A risk matrix is a grid with two axes: Impact or Consequence on the X-axis and Likelihood on the Y-axis. Each axis is on a scale of less to worse, making it easy to assess a risk once identified.  

Furthermore, a risk matrix enables teams to quickly assess Impact and Likelihood separately to return an overall risk rating. This tool is vital for prioritizing risks, guiding managers to allocate resources efficiently, and focusing on the most significant issues.

Which is better? 4x4 or 5x5 Risk Matrix?

There are two common types of risk matrices used in project management, and picking the right one depends on the project scope. Both 4x4 and 5x5 risk matrices evaluate risks by their likelihood and potential impact.  

The significant difference lies in their level of detail: the 5x5 matrix offers a more granular analysis, allowing for finer distinctions between risk levels. This makes the 5x5 matrix ideal for large, complex construction projects with multifaceted risks or when asset owners require in-depth risk assessments to inform critical decisions.  

However, a 4x4 matrix offers a simpler approach suitable for smaller projects, preliminary risk assessments, or teams with less experience in formal risk management methodologies.  

Regardless of the chosen format, project stakeholders must have clearly defined, project-specific terms for each level of likelihood and impact to ensure consistency and accuracy in risk assessments using a risk matrix.

Step-by-Step Guide on How to Build a Risk Matrix

1. Identify the Risks

Begin by brainstorming potential roadblocks with your team and stakeholders. Consider internal factors like resource availability, technical expertise, and scope creep.  

For instance, during a hospital construction project, identifying the risk of skilled labor shortages early on allows for proactive mitigation strategies like pre-scheduling key personnel or establishing partnerships with training institutions.  

Additionally, external factors like weather disruptions, fluctuating material costs, and regulation changes should be considered. For example, a coastal wind farm project might face potential delays due to unforeseen weather events.  

2. Determine the Likelihood of Each Risk's Occurrence

Assess the probability of each identified risk materializing. Utilize a qualitative scale (Very Low, Low, Moderate, High, Very High) or a quantitative scale (numerical values or percentages) based on your project's needs.  

In the hospital construction example, a history of consistent labor supply in the region might lead to a "Low" likelihood rating for skilled labor shortages. Another scenario can be a wind farm project in a hurricane-prone area might receive a "High" likelihood rating for weather disruptions.

Example of citing possible risks for capital projects and determining its likelihood and impact.
Example of citing possible risks for capital projects and determining its likelihood and impact.

3. Identify Impact Categories for All Your Identified Risks

Define the key areas that your identified risks could potentially impact. These typically encompass cost, schedule, quality, and scope.  

However, consider project-specific categories as well. For the hospital project, a risk like faulty medical equipment deliveries could not only impact the project schedule (delays) but also threaten patient safety (quality).  

Similarly, for the wind farm project, the risk of encountering unexpected geological formations during construction could escalate costs and potentially delay the project timeline.

4. Examine the Impact of Each Risk

Evaluate the potential severity of each risk's impact on the identified categories. Use qualitative or quantitative scales based on your project's needs.  

For the hospital project, a delay in medical equipment deliveries might be assigned a "Moderate" impact on the schedule but a "Very High" impact on quality if it affects critical patient care equipment.  

In the wind farm project, encountering unexpected geological formations could have a "High" impact on both cost (additional excavation work) and schedule (construction delays).

5. Establish a Risk Level

After qualitatively assessing likelihood and impact, establish a more precise ranking for each risk. For instance, assign numerical scores on a scale of 1-5 for both likelihood and impact (1 being very low and 5 being very high).  

In our hospital construction example, a delay in medical equipment deliveries might receive a likelihood score of 3 (Moderate) and an impact score of 4 (High) in relation to patient care.  

For the wind farm project, the risk of encountering unexpected geological formations might receive a 4 (High) for likelihood and a 5 (Very High) for impact due to significant budget implications.

6. Calculate a Risk Score

Multiply each risk's numerical likelihood and impact scores to obtain a risk score. This score provides a quantifiable way to prioritize risks. Higher risk scores indicate a greater need for proactive mitigation strategies.  

Continuing with our hospital example, the risk of delayed medical equipment deliveries would be a risk score of 12 (3 x 4). In the wind farm scenario, the risk of unexpected geological formations would hold a risk score of 20 (4 x 5).

A screenshot of a graphDescription automatically generated
Mastt's 5x5 risk matrix makes it easier to plot different risks based on likelihood and impact.

7. Create a Final Risk Matrix and Plot Risks for Your Capital Project

Determine the final risk matrix that suits the complexity of your project and the risk categories you've established after following steps 1 to 6. Label one axis with your likelihood scale (e.g., 1-5) and the other with your impact scale (e.g., 1-5).  

Utilize risk management software or adaptable templates and plot each identified risk within the matrix according to its assigned likelihood and impact scores, allowing for a quick visual assessment. Consider color-coding risk levels within your matrix (e.g., green for low, amber for moderate, and red for high risk) to easily identify priorities.

Risk Analysis Techniques for Effective Risk Matrices

Employing thorough risk analysis techniques is foundational when building a risk matrix for your project. Understanding project risk through effective risk analysis is crucial, as it provides the insights necessary to populate your risk matrix accurately. This involves identifying potential risks and understanding their possible impacts and the likelihood of their occurrence.

Also read: How to Create a Risk Register

The Importance of a Risk Matrix in Project Management

Utilizing a risk matrix significantly enhances decision-making capabilities within project management. It systematically identifies potential threats and quantifies their impacts, ensuring that project managers focus on the most critical areas. Effective use of a risk matrix aids in risk mitigation and enhances the project's overall resilience.


Constructing a comprehensive risk matrix is an integral part of the risk management process in capital projects. By methodically assessing risks and their impacts, project managers can safeguard their projects against unforeseen challenges, leading to better outcomes and more efficient project execution.  

This guide on how to build a risk matrix for projects serves as a critical resource for project managers aiming to enhance their project's resilience and ensure that risks are managed effectively, allowing for the successful completion of projects within the designated scope, time, and budget constraints.

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