I caught up with an industry colleague recently who wanted to share with me the success his company, Risktec, have had with the introduction of simple game-based scenarios to encourage the workforce to think about major accident hazards and risk in a more engaging way. We talked about Jenga.

This reminded me how effective a Game Metaphor can be as a systems thinking tool to generate new ways of thinking, and in this example, about how we manage risk.

Jenga is not a game of chance, it is a game of choice. When managing risk, and when making risk based decisions we are also choosing what steps to take to make sure the benefits of decisions, and the remaining risk is acceptable to the organisation. We choose which blocks (or safeguards) to keep in play, and which ones may be acceptable to adjust, modify or live without.

Thinking about risk management in terms of a Game Metaphor creates some general features for us to think about;

  • There is a set of defined rules which all the players agree to follow, and from time to time the rules may change
  • The players of the Game recognise what it means to do well (win the Game), or do badly (and lose) and each player adopts his strategy based on their own perspective
  • There will be competition between the players, but all must co-operate sufficiently to ‘stay in the Game’

In our upstream industry, we are overwhelmed with internal rules and external regulation. The new Safety Case Regulations are an obvious example of a rule change, but within organisations, we are on a continuous iterative loop of new or revised internal procedures and processes. Sometimes the rule change allows more Jenga blocks to be removed than previously thought safe to so, think ‘fitness for purpose’ calculations versus more conservative design codes. In other cases, we put so many rules in place, you may get only a few moves in before the game stops, you might think of a few examples from your own experience.

No one of course wants to lose, that is, creating a situation that leads to an unplanned event, whether it affects major accident risks, personal safety, or operational impact. But what does it mean to win? Obviously not to have unplanned events, but depending on your perspective that will also mean no unplanned events and meeting production targets, or meeting a stretch budget target, or to maintain strong regulatory relationships, or to improve operational culture. These goals are not always mutually aligned; a balance must be struck to ensure the right judgements are made to control risk. In ‘Game Playing’ mode, there is a clear advantage to try different scenarios to safely test the impact of removing the next block from the Jenga tower….

However, in daily operations, how aware are we there are many little nudges to the blocks being made, which in isolation, do not appear to have any material significance; but add up all those little moves and adjustments, and you might only be one step away from losing the game. Think cumulative risk, organisational change, a growing trend of deferrals, a tendency to drift towards lower standards, or a complacent culture, as some examples which can weaken the overall resilience of the structure.

If we turn the rules of the game on their head, we can conjure a different approach to risk management. Rather than gradually, and often unintentionally, removing blocks to weaken an originally sound structure without it falling, let’s assume the starting point is a degraded structure with hidden weaknesses and imbalances. From here, the rule could be to add blocks. Over time, and by looking at the Jenga tower from different angles, you gradually build a strong, robust structure which is resilient from knocks and pushes. Now liken this to a strong organisation, management system and workforce moving towards best practice – a winning strategy!

Game-based scenarios can be used in a safe environment to test strategies and decision-making. When we make decisions, we must properly test them in every sense, and every possible consequence before they are implemented. We can change the rules and test the impact, we can see how much better outcomes can be by collaborating between players, and we can recognise the trade-offs between risk, cost and performance.

If we weaken the organisational and systemic structure too far, the consequences are irreversible, the blocks come crashing to the ground. We all lose.