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A question of risk

David Hillson
September 9, 2014

One of the most common symbols used to represent risk is a question mark (‘?’), reflecting the uncertainty associated with all risks. Since risk is defined as “uncertainty that matters”, there will always be at least four important questions to answer about every risk:

  • What is the uncertainty?
  • How uncertain is it?
  • Why does it matter?
  • How much does it matter?

But there are many other questions raised by risk, and the link between risk and questions means that everyone with responsibility for managing risk needs to know how to ask and answer the right questions. Of course asking and answering questions is part of everyday conversation for all of us, so we might think that questioning is a natural skill that we all possess. But perhaps it is not as easy as we assume.

There are a range of question types that can be used for different purposes. Some questions provide structure, others direct flow, and some help us to reach closure.

Question types include:

  • Open questions, to gather information and facts. For example: “What are your concerns and worries about this situation?”
  • Probing questions, to gain additional detail. For example: “Can you explain why that matters?”
  • Hypothetical questions, to suggest an approach or introduce new ideas. For example: “If you could get additional funding or resources, how might that help?”
  • Reflective questions, to check understanding. For example: “So would you prioritise the most critical areas for attention first and make sure that everyone knew what was most important?”
  • Closed questions, to bring agreement, commitment and conclusion. For example: “When will you talk to your team and the client about this?”

These questions are often used in a structured ‘question funnel’. The funnel starts very wide, with open questions to consider a broad range of possibilities, then it uses probing and hypothetical questions to fill in missing information, increase understanding and suggest additional ways of thinking about the situation.

Finally, the question funnel focuses things down by using reflective questions to ensure that all the main issues have been considered, and ending with closed questions to produce an agreed way forward.

The question funnel can provide a framework for a risk interview, starting with broad concerns and ending with well-defined risks and ideas for how to address them. It can also be mapped more widely to the risk process:

  • Risk identification uses open questions to find the areas that need to be considered.
  • Risk assessment uses probing and hypothetical questions to determine which risks should receive priority attention.
  • Risk response development uses reflective and closed questions to help us to decide what actions to take.

The risk process is about exploring the risks that we face, trying to understand them, and considering what responses might be effective in ensuring that risks are managed properly. Each of these steps involves answering questions, but to get the right answers we must ask the right questions.

This briefing was originally published as ‘Asking the right questions’ and has been reproduced with permission.

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David Hillson
Dr David Hillson has a worldwide reputation as a leading thinker and expert practitioner in risk management, specialising in strategic and tactical risk, with a particular interest in opportunities and risk psychology. Better known worldwide as the Risk Doctor, Hillson is an expert risk consultant, author and popular speaker. He is also a Fellow of the Project Management Institute (PMI).
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