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Are we forcing the mirror of truth into soft focus? - Can we handle the worst case scenario?

Created: 13 Jun 2012 • Updated: 25 Jun 2013
Sarah Whipp's picture
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In my first blog I talked about the importance of having good data that is coherent across teams and departments. While it’s inevitable that groups will choose reporting periods that show them in the best possible light, senior execs need a single view of the truth.

But what about planning? It is easy to create forward projections that are more optimistic than realistic, particularly in the current financial climate. While can be difficult to predict buying behaviours with any certainty, however, it should be more straightforward to present sensible worst-case scenarios. But is it?

A long time ago, when I was an idealistic young marketing exec, I prepared a detailed business plan for one if my managers. He looked it through and threw it back at me. “That's no good,” he said, “I need a better worst case scenario.” In other words, one which wasn’t quite as bad. At the time I thought that was the craziest expression I'd ever heard. “We all want a better worst case scenario,” I replied, “But that's why we call it worst case, surely?”

In the middle of these tough economic times, I now find myself having to decide between business cases to invest the company's money for the best possible return. However the phrase, “a better worst case scenario” has come back to haunt me. How many of our teams are avoiding sharing the worst-case scenario of their plans with us? How many are painting a better picture because they think managers won’t be interested, because we need to deliver growth and just don’t want to contemplate the worst case?

The point is not how bad the worst-case looks, but what can be done about it. I used to work with a colleague who always seemed to worry about things that might never happen. “Better take an umbrella,” she’d say, “it might rain.” Often it didn’t – but if it ever did rain unexpectedly, she was the one who was prepared.

While we might not want to consider the worst, what’s most important is to have a good, solid Plan B. To have this requires some good, old-fashioned honesty about potential risks and pot-holes, situations which can then be matched against what we would do about them.  Rather than just leaving things to chance, in the hope bad things don't happen, here are some tips about how to avoid them completely:


No, we don’t want to create an environment where everyone expects disasters to happen, all the time. But we do want our teams to demonstrate that they have a sensible plan in place, based on careful thought about what might go wrong. The worst case of all would be the one where someone later says, “I thought of that but didn’t want to tell you, as I thought you might not like it” – after the effect.