Learning how to make risk-based decisions using bowties

The risk manager’s dilemma

When is ‘safe’, ‘safe enough’? In other words, when is the risk we’re taking within acceptable limits? That’s the question that lies at the heart of a risk manager’s task. You carefully weigh the risk and the amount of barriers (i.e. risk reduction measures) you require to lower the risk to an acceptable level. This is by no means a simple equation: Too high a risk and your people or your business might get hurt. Likewise, too many barriers will hinder the operation and will prove costly, as anyone working in the operation will tell you. Ideally, the amount of barriers is proportionate to the amount of risk. Luckily, a bowtie and the overview it provides can help you balance this. Slice’s “Bowtie: The Game” simulates this task and helps the players understand how bowties are used to weigh risk in a fun way.

Put yourself in the shoes of a risk manager

In Bowtie: The Game, you are the risk manager of a company that engages in risky operations. The game provides you with a bowtie on this operation, complete with scenarios and barrier options. For now let’s say we’re a construction company that has to deal with working at heights (other themes are also available). As in reality, you have a limited budget to work with. You decide which barriers to implement, weighing costs and effectiveness, barrier type etc. Once you’ve made your safety investments, it is time for your company to make some revenue.

Simulate unwanted scenarios

Since you’re the manager, you decide how many contracts your company takes on. For every contract you take on, you can potentially make more money. But there is a tradeoff: Taking on contracts exposes you to more risk. You draw a scenario card for each contract, which simulates an unwanted event. It’s now up to the barriers you’ve invested in to stop the ultimate consequences! Just like in real life, your barriers may fail. You roll the dice and check to see if you beat your barrier’s effectiveness score. Effective barriers stop the scenario’s, avoiding negative consequences. You’ve finished the contract safely and earn some credits. If your barriers fail and the scenario reaches the ultimate consequences, your company loses credits, potentially bankrupting you! The money you earn can be reinvested the next round. At the end of four rounds, the amount of money you’ve accrued determines the winner.

Intuitively use bowties to make decisions

The game can be played cooperatively, deciding as a team which barriers to buy and how many contracts to take on. The goal is then to beat a previous high score. In this cooperative mode, it is interesting to see how team members discuss and weigh barriers to decide what to do. Some team members will tend to avoid risks, while others have a larger risk appetite. Players intuitively use the bowtie diagram as a tool to underpin their arguments and point to specific scenarios and barriers to clarify their intentions. This demonstrates how bowties are used in group discussions to quickly arrive at fruitful conclusions.

Market pressures on safety

The game can also be played by pitting two or more groups of players against each other. In that case, the team that ends up with the most credits wins. Even though the teams can make decisions completely independently, you can often observe that the behaviour of one group influences the other group. For example, if one group overhears that another group is taking on more contracts (and therefore more risk), they are often tempted to take more risk as well. They don’t want to be outdone by the other group. In the real world, such pressures from outside also exist and influence decisions in similar ways. The game recreates these pressures and shows us that we can all fall prey to them.

What the game teaches us

The winner of the game is determined by how much money they get to accrue. Unfortunately, that is generally still how a company’s success is evaluated today. If a group finishes with a very high score, it usually means that they have been taking huge risks and being very lucky on their dice rolls. This time, they got away with a good result, but it is not a sustainable strategy. I therefore like to ask the group, whether they would like to work for a company like that. They usually don’t.

All in all, the game teaches us how to use bowties to come to risk-based decisions. You decide when safe is safe enough. This game is used by Slice in bowtie training courses, to discuss the ALARP principle (As Low as Reasonably Practicable) and how to use barrier properties such as effectiveness and criticality to your advantage. In workshops, we use the game to explain barrier thinking to people who are not familiar with bowties.


If you would like to know more about this game, book a workshop with us to try it out in your company, feel free to contact us. We’ll gladly tell you more about it.

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