Thinking about Plan B with the Structured What-If Technique

(Part of the 31010 Series of posts on Risks & Ventures. For more information on this series please follow this link).

Practical risk management often involves doing things that we kind of do already, but just doing them with a bit more structure and conscious thought. A good example of this is the Structured What-If Technique, which is also often shortened to SWIFT or SWIFT Thinking. 

In IEC 31010 it’s categorised as a technique to identify risks and contextual information. 

To help you understand how The SWIFT Technique works I’d like you to think for a moment about a time when you were planning to achieve an objective. It could be something quite serious and significant, maybe like finding a new job, moving home or a new strategic direction for your business; but if all you can think of right now is the last time you planned to go out for a meal, this should work just as well to illustrate the idea. 

Once you have done this, I’d also like you to consider whether at the time when you were thinking about this objective you also had some ideas about other things you might do if your first, Plan A choice didn’t work out. For example:

I hope I get that new job but if I don’t get it I’m going to… ”

  • “…leave anyway”  
  • “…ask for a pay rise” 
  • “…just get on with working hard and keep looking for other opportunities“.

Or for example, if you couldn’t get a reservation at the smart, new Italian place you were hoping to, perhaps you were going to go to the sushi restaurant close to the office where you knew you’d always be able to get a table.

Regardless of whether your own examples are about serious, deeply consequential issues or not, the good news is that if you can think of a time when you developed a first option and then some secondary options, this means that you are already familiar with the basic idea of the  Structured “What If” Technique.

Like brainstorming, it’s something that many of us do informally multiple times every day, however with a little formal fine tuning it is a very accessible technique which can be a real asset in both your personal and organizational cognitive tool boxes.


How Do I Do The SWIFT Technique

The SWIFT Technique requires three steps which you can repeat as much as you need: 

1. Think about an objective or plan: something you want to achieve, and how you want to go about it.

2. Consider the “What-Ifs” of the situation: the things that might happen and could effect this plan. Usually in risk management these would be the undesirable things (the threat or hazards) that make your objective more difficult to achieve, but this technique does also work with good things too, when situations might go better then expected. (For example if a stock you have purchased rises faster than you had thought it would.) 

3. Consider some alternative options connected to those “What Ifs”. These are our Plan Bs and Plan Cs, or to borrow an expression used in military planning, alternative courses of action

If the “What Ifs” happen, you can action one or more of the alternative options.


When Do We Use The SWIFT Technique

In formal risk management practice the SWIFT Technique is often used as part of a brainstorming process where a facilitator will have a predetermined list of items, ideas or issues to present to a group for discussion.

In this type of situation the scope of the scope of the SWIFT Technique can be quite comprehensive, and could include:

  • specific threats and opportunities (things that could go wrong and desirable outcomes),
  • relevant ideas about the topic that have worked and failed in the past,
  • ideas about mitigation methods for undesirable outcomes and exploitation methods for desirable outcomes,
  • relevant regulations and other PESTLE factors, and
  • human factor and stakeholder considerations, for example what people or groups of people would be effected by different “what-ifs” and courses of action.

The points raised in a formal SWIFT session can be both general and technical, but in either case it is still important that these are captured in a way that allows them to used by decision-makers and planners, especially if these key people are not taking part themselves. These methods could be as simple as rigorous note-taking to a detailed technical plan, or anything in between; but we quite like a brief summary document like the one we describe later at the end of this post.

One of the most important things to remember is that one of the techniques’ greatest weaknesses is a lack of relevant knowledge, because if the people using SWIFT don’t understand the topics well enough that they are supposed to be thinking about and creating options for, the end results are going to have gaps and weaknesses too.

How Does This Technique Work?

At it’s simplest level Structured What-If Thinking is about asking yourself. “If this happens, what to I do?”, so it’s suitable for practical and formal risk assessment situations.

Let’s illustrate this with an example.

Let’s say you are on holiday with your friends, you’ve had a good time but you are going to have to catch your flight home in a couple of days, early in the morning. (This is your Objective).

Your first plan is to get an Uber at 4am because that’s what you would do at home in this situation, however let’s also say that you’ve never tried to take an Uber in this holiday destination let alone so early in the morning. So probably as a group you are going to talk about some ideas, and in particular what if the Uber doesn’t show up or you can’t get one. (These are your primary What Ifs).

Because you are not from that city you probably are not going to know about all the different options such as buses, taxis and trains available to you at 4am in the morning, and you probably wouldn’t know the margin of time each of these options allows you if your Uber didn’t work out.  

Almost certainly in this situation you would seek out some further information, maybe just Googling the local transport travel timetables, maybe going on some local travel sites or forums, and perhaps if you had the opportunity to do it, seek out some subject matter expertise in the form of local people who are familiar with this situation, for example in this case a hotel concierge would usually be a good choice. 

In this situation with even just a little bit of initiative and access to these resources you would very quickly be able to build up a picture of the things that might effect your objective of catching your flight, and some decent Plan Bs, Cs, and Ds, if it didn’t work out quite the way you had hoped. (These are your Alternative Options).

However, just imaging for a moment there was no travel information online about this area, and there wasn’t really anyone to ask, this would leave gaps in the end product of your SWIFT process. You would know that there were some potential threats to your objective: being late, your driver not turning up, not being able to get a driver at that time in the morning, not getting a train in time, missing your flight and so on, but you wouldn’t know very much about the specific measures or controls you could take to deal with those threats. 

So access to the right type of knowledge is important to the quality of your SWIFT assessment outcomes, but conversely if you do manage to get a group of appropriately knowledgeable people on the subject topic involved, SWIFT can be a very effective and fast way to share ideas and to identify and list potential risks and develop, and sketch mitigation and contingency options, which then could be used as the basis for further formal documents like risk registers and operational plans and procedures if these are required. The SWIFT process also encourages participants to think about an issue in a holistic, complete way particularly if it is facilitated properly, and it can be used to bring in viewpoints from a range of stakeholders and opinion-holders.

However even if you don’t have much information, SWIFT can still be really useful technique, including as a starting point for further research, just as long you understand the weaknesses. 

Individual SWIFTing

SWIFT is intended to be a group technique, but it easy for individuals to use the general concept as well to think about goals, objectives and plans: figuring out all the activities that are need to achieve something and alternative options if in case things don’t happen quite as you either expect or hope they will.

Like many other risk assessment techniques, SWIFT can be used in a fast, practical, “on-the-fly” way for when rapid decisions are required, as well as for occasions when you have time and opportunity to sit down and do some deep analysis.


Trying Out The SWIFT Technique

Why don’t you give it a go now.

  1. Find a piece of paper and write something you are wanting to achieve or planning to do at the top. (“The Objective”) 
  2. Divide the page into three columns.
  3. Think logically about the steps of your plan or the things that you need to do to achieve the objective you have written at the top, and then write them in a sequential list down the left hand side of the page.  
  4. Look at each step you have written and think about things that could potentially go wrong with each one. (“The What If’s”). Write these down in the middle column.
  5. For each “What-Ifs” think about positive actions that you can take as a counter-plan if they do happen. (“The Alternatives”) Write these down on the right hand side of the page.  

 As you start to build up the scenario you may find that you are going back and adding additional detail to all of the columns. This is totally fine because a SWIFT analysis should change as time goes on and new information is added. It is always going to be a snapshot at a particular moment rather than something fixed. 


Whether you ever use SWIFT formally or not, just remembering to ask yourself “What If” whenever you make plans will help you anticipate how things could deviate from what you are looking for, and also help you find alternative solutions, better and faster, if they do. 




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