Sometimes the hardest part of using engineering judgement can be explaining to someone else why the judgement that one option is the best is actually so.

This is especially true in three specific scenarios. The first will likely be familiar: an engineer trying to convince a financial decision-maker that more money should be spent on something judged (by the engineer) to be necessary.

The second scenario occurs perhaps less than it should: an engineer presenting a recommendation for the best business option to a board or Minister.

The third scenario is less common again but more critical: an engineer trying to explain to a Court why he or she judged it best to take the course of action he or she took before or during the incident the Court is investigating.

The courts and the financial decision-makers perceive the world in very different ways. Financial cost-benefit analyses tend to look ahead for a stated period of time to allow comparison with other competing options. But the period of consideration is not necessarily aligned with the risks presented by the option being assessed, and may actually discount high consequence risks with long return periods – those risks that can lead to crises. Thus, a good cost-benefit ratio does not guarantee that a duty of care will be met, even with all non-monetary aspects quantified (safety and financial risk, flow on benefits, and so on.

Boards and Ministers, though, view the world in a strikingly similar manner to the courts. The single biggest difference is that boards and Ministers look to the future, while the courts look to the past. Both focus on what could be done to address critical incidents, be they potential (boards and Ministers) or actual (the courts).

That is, the courts look back after incidents, using hindsight to put themselves in the place of persons who had some control at the time, to determine any reasonable measures that ought to have been in place to prevent them. Boards and Ministers use foresight to examine when potential incidents have hypothetically occurred and identify reasonable measures to prevent and mitigate these incidents. These loops of perspective are shown below.

crisisBoards and Ministers often appear driven to this perspective by the sheer accumulation of threats they face across their very large portfolios. But their view is more nuanced than this. Their duty is to ensure the organisation they direct, be it a corporation or a government department, continues to exist and function according to its mandate – in the case of a corporation, safely and profitably, and in the case of government, ensuring essential services are reliably available.

The presence of any credible critical threat, regardless of its likelihood, means that it must be managed in such a manner that the board or Minister are comfortable that no further reasonable measures are available to address it. This will be done even if, from a pure cost-benefit viewpoint, the measures are not justified. And if a course of action could credibly threaten the existence of the organisation or government it will not be taken, regardless of any (risk-weighted) low cost and high potential benefit.

For instance consider Victoria’s desalination plant. It is currently costing the State $1.8 million per day, and is on track to cost around $19 billion over its service life even if no water is produced. Aside from testing and commissioning, it has yet to produce any water.

On a financial cost-benefit basis this would never be approved. However, Victoria’s Parliament considered the option of a desalination plant after 10 years of drought, with low reservoir levels, and with the credible threat of another 10 years to come. The option to do nothing involved a credible threat that a major Australian population centre could actually run out of water, and as such could not be taken. And so the decision was made to procure a desalination plant.

So what does this mean for our engineer trying to convince various parties that his or her judgement has identified the best option for them? The engineer must formally present his or her deliberative-intuitive judgement process in a clear and logical manner. But this is often not enough. To successfully convince these persons, the engineer must identify those whose organisations rely on his or her recommendations – the board or Minister – and present to them in their own value system. The engineer must explain the credible threats he or she has identified, and the how the reasonable measures needed address these, taking into account the significance of the risks, and the cost, difficulty, and utility of conduct of the available options. And this is most assuredly not simply in terms of a risk-weighted cost-benefit analysis.