From March et al, "Learning from samples of one or fewer:"
Hypothetical histories play a role in organizational learning similar to that of mental models or simulations in studies of individual learning. Organizations use small samples of specific historical events to construct theories about events, and then simulate hypothetical histories that can be treated as having interpretive significance comparable to, or even greater than, the history actually experienced. In this process, the analysis of unique historical outcomes emphasizes identifying the underlying distribution from which that realization was drawn rather than explaining the particular draw.
A pervasive contemporary version of hypothetical histories is found in the use of spread sheets to explore the implications of alternative assumptions or shifts in variables in a system of equations that portrays organizational relations. More generally, many modern techniques of planning in organizations involve the simulation of hypothetical future scenarios, which in the present terms are indistinguishable from hypothetical histories. The logic is simple: small pieces of experience are used to construct a theory of history from which a variety of unrealized, but possible, additional scenarios are gener- ated. In this way, ideas about historical processes drawn from detailed case studies are used to develop distributions of possible futures.
Organizations expand their comprehension of history by making experience richer, by considering multiple interpreta- tions of experience, by using experience to discover and modify their preferences, and by simulating near-events and hypothetical histories. They try to learn from samples of one or fewer.
I've sometimes thought that if we combined historical case studies with scenarios, some clients would learn more. It's a commonplace that, as Paul Saffo says, you should look back twice as far as you look forward (on the theory that, in our fast-changing world, the "change you've lived through in the last 10 years is a predictor of what you are likely to experience in the next 5"); but March's work leads me to suspect that if we more explicitly tapped into organization's use of hypothetical histories, we could make them better at thinking about the future.
Of course, as an historian I would think that.