Risk Assessment Techniques – Brainstorming
(Part of the 31010 Series of posts on Risks & Ventures. For more information on this series please follow this link).
When I’m teaching non-risk professionals about practical risk management and I tell them that brainstorming is a genuine, recognised risk management technique that is listed in what’s probably the world’s most widely used series of formal risk assessment techniques they often give me a bit of a double-take look.
I usually interpret this reaction a bit like this: “You mean brainstorming, that thing that we have all done? That thing is a recognised risk management technique?”
Yes, brainstorming really is a recognised risk management technique, and it is almost certainly the most broadly used and most well-known technique listed in IEC 31010.
The essence of brainstorming is that a group of two or more individuals are gathered together and exchange opinions and views on a particular topic, which are then noted with the purpose of gaining creativity and deeper insight into the issue under consideration.
As you would probably be able to guess a formal brainstorming isn’t quite the same as exchanging ideas with your colleagues or friends over coffee, or even in a regular meeting. A little more structure that this is recommended, although the technique is still highly accessible and suitable for use in informal practical situations as well as very formally structured occasions.
Let’s take a look now at what it is for and some of the things you need to think about to get most value from it.
Set the terms of the session
The brainstorming sessions needs to be structured properly and this is probably the biggest difference between a general discussion session and a proper brainstorming.
- How long is it going to be?
- What kind of people are going to be present?
- What is their knowledge of the relevant issue(s), for example experts, non-experts or a range of positions and views
- How is time going to be allocated within the session?
- What is session agenda?
- What kind of briefing material are the participants going to be given in advance?
- What is the general etiquette for the session going to be in terms of how people communicate?
- How structured is the session going to be?
Having a facilitator
It’s strongly advisable to have someone who knows what they are doing to facilitate the session as they will make sure the participants stick to the pre-decided terms.
Note that the term facilitator is used and not leader. If someone is appointed to lead a discussion this might not give you the creativity and range of views that a structured brainstorming session can provide. A lead discussion is a useful technique in certain circumstances but it isn’t brainstorming.
Record the findings
Think about how you are going to record the participant’s contributions. Is something going to take notes or are you going to record or video the sessions. It’s always best to let people know what you are doing even in cases where it is not necessarily a legal requirement.
Try not to over-analyse stuff
Brainstorming sessions are intended to generate ideas, introduce stakeholder views and opinions and stimulate creativity, they are not intended for deep, technical analysis of the topics, so a good facilitator should be moving on discussions if this starts to happen.
Analysis is good, but deep analysis isn’t supposed to be part of brainstorming.
Be careful about biases
Group situations are subject to biases like groupthink, convergence around an idea and the group being led to think a particular way by one or two individuals within it.
Sometimes due to personal traits like shyness some participants are also reluctant to contribute, so the facilitator should be try to set up an atmosphere where everyone is comfortable with taking part.
And definitely if we are talking about a session with work colleagues the relative seniority of different people present will have an effect too, so senior people need to be particularly careful about letting subordinates talk and think freely if they want authentic results.
Take some individual time too
It is possible to brainstorm as an individual too and many of us do this regularly in personal journals and notebooks. From a formal risk management perspective the technique is intended to be used by more than one person, however it is also totally acceptable, even recommended in fact, for there to be periods of individual reflection within any brainstorming session.
For us the power of brainstorming lies in its accessibility and flexibility. You really can use this technique across the risk assessment process both in a very practical and informal way, for an example when something unexpected has just happened and you want to elicit opinions about it rapidly within your team right away; or it can be used a much more deeply structured and planned way setting conditions and deliberately bringing in a variety of opinions and stakeholders.
Beyond this it is also a great example of how we really do risk management all the time, even if we don’t always think about it that way.