December 2011 | 

Taboo Scenarios: The Perils of Ignoring the Unthinkable

taboo scenarios

Think of them as “predictable surprises”; they’re disasters such as the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the implosion of the sub-prime mortgage sector. These situations offered many signals that catastrophe was a distinct possibility, but the signals went unheeded. The problem wasn’t a lack of evidence, but instead an unwillingness to confront it.

“Ideas that are seen as taboo, such as the data regarding O-ring failure in the space shuttle, don’t get the attention they merit,” notes Paul Schoemaker, Learning Director for Wharton Executive Education’s Critical Thinking: Real-World, Real-Time Decisions. “These taboo scenarios pose a great risk as our environment becomes more uncertain and complex. Keeping quiet might serve to maintain harmony, but it can also blind leaders to impending disasters.”

In their forthcoming article, “Taboo Scenarios: How to Think about the Unthinkable” (California Management Review, Winter 2012), Schoemaker and fellow Wharton Professor Philip Tetlock argue that while considering worst-case scenarios is uncomfortable, and in some organizations even dangerous, ignoring or repressing the truth isn’t the answer. “Leaders need to foster organizational cultures that reward intellectual curiosity. When alternative points of view can be shared in a constructive spirit, leaders are less likely to be blindsided by scenarios that were rendered invisible by taboos against speaking the truth. This can be done through example by leaders sharing alternative points of view, or by rewarding all those who speak frankly against the prevailing norm.”

Specifically, Schoemaker explains that this spirit of openness is highly valuable in scenario planning. “Scenario planning is an especially good technique to force teams to examine uncomfortable possibilities, precisely because they are developed as tentative hypotheses. They should be framed as exploratory, without necessarily any formal endorsement or sanction.” In Critical Thinking, he leads executives to consider multiple possible future worlds, using “disciplined imagination.” He recently told a group of participants, “You should be planning not just for potential rosy scenarios but for disastrous ones as well. Solicit and catalyze multiple interpretations about current conditions besetting your industry and possible future concerns. Scan for weak signals from the periphery and play out their implications. By talking explicitly about what is uncertain or unknowable, you open the door to viewpoints that would otherwise be too threatening.”

Because emotional barriers are often even more impermeable than cognitive ones when addressing taboo scenarios, leaders face unique challenges. Schoemaker stresses that they must “foster an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. There must be cultural diversity, tolerance for ambiguity, and respect for differences. Your organization’s culture may need to be oriented more toward frank conversation and respect for those who disagree with the majority view.”

He continues, “You can also motivate the development of taboo scenarios by pointing out how common they are, and that no organization is immune. Cite examples of some past taboos that should have been surfaced sooner. Explain that organizations tend to get blindsided because they filter out those peripheral signals that don’t fit the prevailing mental model or value system.”

Entertaining the possibility of worst-case scenarios is uncomfortable, but Schoemaker’s approach can make the process easier to deal with. And in the end, what’s worse: planning for disaster, or getting blindsided by it?