It's the thinking that matters with scenarios

Scenario Planning is a term often used to describe the process of creating ideas about, and images of, future worlds to provide a long term context for strategic thinking. I won't dwell on the various criticisms of the method, except to say that I agree with Richard Slaughter's view (Futures Beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight, 2004) that the formulaic approach to developing scenarios could do with an injection of integral thinking - it is missing explicit consideration of the upper left quadrant of individual/self (using Ken Wilber's four quadrant model).

Unless scenarios are used as a tool rather than an end product in a strategy development process, you run the risk of everyone saying ‘well, that was cute and a bit of fun, let’s go back to work’ – that is, let’s go back to doing things the way we have always done them and let's think the way we have always thought. When I worked at Swinburne University in Melbourne, one very senior manager said to me something along the lines of ‘oh, we used scenario planning in my last job; it didn’t work, and I’m not going to be involved in using them here’. There were other issues in her rejection of scenario thinking, but her previous experience treated scenarios as a product, not as an input into the decision making process. The future worlds created in scenarios must be linked back to the strategy needs of the organisation today.

A bit of a disclaimer - I was trained in the Global Business Network method of developing scenarios, and it suits my way of working and how my brain likes to deal with information. That said, one of the things we made sure of at Swinburne was that when we spoke with people about using this method, we stressed that the process was as valuable (if not more valuable) than the scenarios themselves. Ian Wilson's comment about strategic plans applies equally to scenarios - there's not much to be gained from the scenarios themselves, but a lot to be gained from the thinking that went into developing them.

"Managing the future"?

To the point of this blog post. I recently watched the recording of the webinar Protecting your organisation against future uncertainty - Futures planning using horizon scanning and social computing, with Mike Jackson of Shaping Tomorrow and Dave Snowden from Cognitive Edge. It was a good webinar, and as usual when listening to Dave Snowden talk about how the brain works and cognition, there were a couple of ‘aha’ moments that had me scribbling notes furiously. But, one thing Dave said made me think about the terminology applied to scenario planning.

Dave talked about scenarios being used as a tool to manage the future – he described a traditional way of developing scenarios: a small number of senior executives and an external consultant build a two by two matrix in an attempt to order the future with the aim of future-proofing the organisation. The result, he says, is that the view of the future is constrained by the scenarios developed since you are only monitoring those scenarios, and it’s basically not a very smart way to explore the complexity of the future. I agree.

But, that view is traditional and I don't believe it is the way people who are serious about building strategic thinking  capacity use the method. Dave’s view seems to be based on the ‘scenarios as product’ rather than the ‘scenarios as a thinking tool’ approach. It is stupid to create scenarios and make the assumption that the future is somehow ‘captured’ in this work.

A critical step in the scenario process is to take the future worlds developed and do a couple of things – assess what potential strategies would be robust across all of them and which would help address critical issues being faced today, and backcast the future – step back from the future through time to build an understanding of what challenges might emerge over time and possible responses to those challenges. Identifying what indicators might suggest whether a particular trend is clashing with another, or derailing another, or connecting with yet another is one major outcome of scenario work, and these indicators are what is monitored – not the scenarios (since it is highly unlikely that any scenario world will eventuate exactly as described). Indeed, the scenarios probably have a short use-by life, and are really only valuable up to the point where strategic options and indicators are developed.

Does terminology matter?

Just like we should stop using the term ‘futurology’, we should probably stop using the term ‘scenario planning’ and adopt the term already in use: scenario thinking. This might shift the focus of attention away from trying to gauge value from the ‘planning’ element of the term (that is, how do scenarios help us plan for the future?), and direct it to understanding that scenarios are a strategic thinking tool, not an end in themselves – that is, how do scenarios help us better understand the complexity of the future, and be flexible enough to respond quickly to whatever the future brings.

Scenarios aren’t about future proofing (which is another term we should ban), they are about being futures ready. I might even go so far as to suggest that we move from the tangible output to the intangible - stop publishing the scenario narratives and instead publish case studies about the processes we use, looking for ways in which thinking about the future has strengthened or changed, and identifying the major indicators of possible future change that we should be watching over time. What do you think?