One of the most easily understood ways of evoking foresight when you are part of a decision-making process is to utter the phrase “what is the worst case scenario?” Almost everyone understands when that phrase is asked then they have to imagine things not working out as they expect/hope and then to decide whether the ‘risk/opportunity’ arising from the decision outweighs that non-preferred future. This is one way to test the Goal Commitment of decision-makers.

The worst case scenario is also used when a person is trapped in a low-hope circumstance and they believe that a recommended course of action will only make things more hopeless. When the worst case is closely examined and does not seem so disastrous then a low hope person can find the self agency to take the course of action and hope can be restored.

The attraction for practitioners is to think that such a commonly understood use of the foresight can be deliberately employed to open up a foresight space in decision-making processes. Further it could be imagined that evoking ‘worst case’ will lead to better, more foresightful decision-making. But will it? I have just read a very useful book on this very topic. Called, not surprisingly, Worst Case Scenarios by Cass Sunstein (2007), and it takes a serious look at the strengths and weaknesses in this foresight approach. The book does makes for uncomfortable reading at one level as it clearly concludes that the serious consideration of the ‘worst case’ is a bridge too far for most people. Still within it I did find some hopeful signs.

While there are a few examples of the social capacity to consider the worst case scenario (e.g. CFC gas bans, Y2K, Swine Flu) history, at the present, is replete with examples of policy and leadership trainwrecks in this regard (Hurricane Katrina, global warming, 2009 Victorian bushfires) and few issues that keep some of us awake at night (GM food, nannotech). Sunstein’s hypothesis is that we can’t use worst case scenarios about futures that people don’t have a current referent for. So domestic airline security was not a referent for a worst case scenario on 10 September and it was on September 11. This is quite depressing as it does suggest that we will need to experience something like the worst case before we will be able to think about the worst case. Bugger.

Some more joyful points from Sunstein; he found that the shibboleth of the futures community, the Precautionary Principle (having no evidence that something won’t go wrong is not a basis for doing something anyway), is basically useless in situations of significant complexity because the principle prevents all actions and inactions because whichever way you move you will offend it. After trashing the much-loved Precautionary Principle, Sunstein then found favour in the much-hated ‘future discounting’ approach to the worst case. While futurists hate the idea that the future is less ‘valuable’ than the present, Sunstein found that it is an effective way to consider worst case scenarios. If consequences can be monetarised then decision-makers do have a basis of making preventative and precautionary decisions. Importantly though Sunstein also found that future discounting did not work in worst cases that involve the loss of human life.

I’m very glad to say that Sunstein did find a need for worst cases to consider Intergenerational Neutrality to be fully effective as a decision-making tool. He favours processes that explicitly draw back the “veil of ignorance to the intergenerational question.”  Rather than avoid the question of whether our actions (or inactions) suit us and our choices, he favours worst cases that consider the impact on those not present now who will live in a worst case that they did not choose. He also favours processes that make decision-makers explicitly declare their view that a life today is worth more than a life in the future as part of their cost-benefit approach – what he calls the ‘morally objectionable’ viewpoint.

Ultimately I think that managing worst cases is at the core of our purpose as practitioners. Being better able to navigate such treacherous waters must be one of our core competencies that we can offer to our clients and organisations to assist them.  It appears that technique will only get you so far and that ultimately it is our ability to reason and act morally in considering the worst case that will determine whether we are a help or a hinderance.