Scenario Planning vs. Collective Vision: Imagining What’s Possible

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Several years ago when I was doing some strategy work for my multinational employer I read Peter Schwartzí book The Art of the Long View , This remains the definitive text, I think, on the process and value of scenario planning. It is not, as many believe, about predicting the future. It is, rather, the field of doing what I have often felt is my gift: imagining possibilities:

You can tell you have good scenarios when they are both plausible and surprising; when they have the power to break old stereotypes; and when the makers assume ownership of them and put them to work. Scenario making is intensely participatory, or it fails.

So the purpose of scenario planning is not to predict and preempt the future, but rather to consider how the future might be different from the present, and what the implications of those differences might be for your organization or your community. A scenario is essentially a script or story about the future, and scenario planning is “ordering oneís perceptions about alternative future environments”. The scenario-building process entails these eight steps:

  1. Identify the Focal Issue or Decision : What do you really want to know? Define a specific decision or issue where having scenarios will be helpful.
  2. Identify Key Factors in the Local Environment: What factors influence the focal issue or decision? What will decision makers want to know when making their choices? This entails doing some ‘cultural anthropologyí, “hunting and gathering intelligence” outside your immediate areas of knowledge, ensuring the scenario-building team is diverse, imaginative and informed, and challenging established “mental maps” about the issue or decision.
  3. Identify Driving Forces: What major trends and driving forces influence the key factors? The work of Porter, Drucker and Christensen can help identify these.
  4. Rank by Importance and Uncertainty: Rank the key factors and driving forces on their degree of importance and the degree of uncertainty. Make an x:y plot with importance vs uncertainty. Those key factors or driving forces that fall in the quadrant high importance and high uncertainty merit further study and inclusion in alternative scenarios.
  5. Select Scenario Logics: Define the key variables for building scenarios and their relationships. Steps 5-7 involves having “strategic conversations” with people throughout the organization or community to get other perspectives on how the scenarios would ‘play out’.
  6. Flesh out the Scenarios: Each key factor and driving force should be given some role in the scenario. 
  7. Implications: What could happen if the different possibilities occurred? Build these into your scenarios. Schwartz talks about a process of “rehearsing the future” to do this.
  8. Selection of the Leading Indicators and Signposts: What trends or events, if they occurred, would add credibility to each scenario?

The objective is to come up with a few alternative scenarios that differ in important, substantive ways, not just in degree, which will increase your group’s knowledge and allow more confident personal and collective decision-making. Itís a disciplined attempt to reduce the ëcost of not knowingí. And, unlike the visioning and predictive processes, itís not about what youíd like the future to be, or think it will be, but rather how it might be, in challengingly different and surprising ways, from how it is today.

Well, thatís the theory anyway. Those who have used the technique will of course tell you that this has provoked novel thinking and insights that have led to much better decisions and savings of millions of dollars and avoided untold grief. Iím not so sure. Iím all for imagining possibilities and developing stories that get us thinking outside of our normal mental models and considering new ideas, approaches and methods. And Iím all in favour of strategic conversations around plausible future trends or events or insights about how the world really works or what could be. But despite scenario plannersí denial that theyíre in the business of predicting, there seems to be a lot of assigning of probabilities to the assessment of scenarios and the making of decisions stemming from them.

As youíre probably tired of hearing me say, most organizations, societies and environments are complex, which means prediction is impossible and the variables that determine what will happen cannot even be identified. The best we can do in complex situations is look for patterns that might suggest the need or opportunity for an intervention ñ creating an attractor or barrier that will tend to encourage or discourage certain behaviours and lead to a preferable outcome. Christensen makes the same point a different way, saying that “disruptive innovations” ñ the ones that can topple the incumbents and transform an industry completely ñ are essentially unpredictable because they come from outside the conceivable attention horizon of the players in that industry. They are not only unexpected, they are ëunexpectableí.

Back in 1989, when The Art of the Long View was written, Schwartz (with Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold and others) produced three scenarios for the year 2005 that they called Global Incoherence, New Empires, and Market World. These make fascinating reading, coming as they did before the dot-com boom and bust, before social networking, and before 9/11. The scenarios greatly overestimated our willingness and ability to do anything about global warming and the environment in general. They also overestimated the impact of new technology on society, the amount of change that the ëinformation economyí would bring about, the impact of then-teenage Gen Yíers (and the trend to cultural homogeneity in general) and the degree of innovation in business and the media. It underestimated the degree of political upheaval, cultural clashes, genocide and war that turned out to be the hallmarks of 2005. It incorrectly foresaw the “replacement of political ideology with pragmatism” as a result of “a world weary of war”. The End of Oil is contemplated but discounted as highly improbable. And while interactive TV is contemplated, there is no mention of anything like what we now call the Internet.

The fault of these scenarios, and of most attempts at imagining alternative futures, is the human tendency to assume the future will be like the present, only more so. Those of us who say this will be the final century of human civilization produce raised eyebrows because the majority cannot conceive of a significant discontinuity between what has happened in the past, what is happening right now, and what is to come. When sudden discontinuous reversals occur (the fall of the Soviet Union, the dot com bust etc.), our tendency is to discount them entirely as unsustainable anomalies and do our political and economic prognosticating as if neither the rise nor the fall had ever happened. When other unexpected discontinuous events occur (9/11, Katrina), our tendency is to exaggerate their significance, to ignore our learnings from everything that happened before them, and to start predicting more of the same, mentally creating new continuities to replace the ones we have lost. Thatís just the way we are.

So rather than create scenarios that help us imagine the future as it seems likely to be, Iíd prefer to create scenarios that can help us imagine the future as it could be. In organizations, thatís what ‘visions’ (a kind of best-case future-state story) are about. And in larger society, thatís a function of utopian (and dystopian) novels, and of some sci-fi. Their value is not in their predictive ability (and that is not their purpose) but rather their ability to stimulate the imagination to think discontinuously, and to provoke the intentionality that comes from thinking about what is possible, and consciously or subconsciously taking the first steps to make that imagined possibility real.

The problem with most visionary imaginings is that they are the product of just one person, or a few people in an organization with similar knowledge and perspectives. They lack The Wisdom of Crowds. For example, my novel-in-progress, The Only Life We Know is about a post-civilization society of diverse and loosely-connected, sustainable, self-selected communities, as an illustration of how intentional communities and natural enterprises could obviate the need for hierarchical states and markets. I had hoped it would be a ëvisioní or model of whatís possible that other ëdeep greensí, anarchists, and progressives could modify and then introduce into their own new ex-civilization or post-civilization communities.

But suppose instead of writing a utopian book solo I wanted to make the visioning a collective effort. Iíve had some preliminary discussions with some fellow idealists about how we could go about collaboratively creating a post-civilization vision and an intentionality program (not a plan, precisely, but more like the set of announced collaborative and individual intentions that come from an Open Space event) to get us there. Using a real Open Space event would be ideal, of course, but getting a couple of hundred people with the imagination to ëcreateí a future vision of a better world, one that envisages better ways to live and make a living, together in one place, would be a challenge unless we were to find a major, progressive, idealistic funder for the event. So perhaps instead we could use a wiki or some other collaborative tool where we would apply the methodology of Open Space virtually to (1) create the future state vision collectively, and then (2) develop an intentionality program to make it real.

This may be too much to expect of an asynchronous tool, and in the worst case it could turn into an anarchic ëherding catsí exercise. But I think with a manageable-sized group and some appropriate ground-rules it could work. The end-product would be not scenarios but an imaginative vision of whatís possible, a model of a virtual ëplaceí for living and making a living sustainably and joyfully in community, and a map, drawn by each of us from where we are now, of how to get there.

Itís worth a try.

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7 Responses to Scenario Planning vs. Collective Vision: Imagining What’s Possible

  1. Ken Stokes says:

    Count me in, bruddah!

  2. Ellen LaConte says:

    Amen. I’m just finishing work on a book called “Critical Mass: Crisis & Opportunity.” Critical Mass names the syndrome of environmental, political, economic, and social crises that have resulted from our habit as “civilized” humans of breaking Life’s — nature’s — organic rules and living beyond Earth’s means. Since it turns out that living systems operate in ways that are essentially democratic, the alternative vision I offer, or rather the umbrella name I propose for a number of antidotes to our current behaviors, is Organic Democracy. I suspect it resembles in kind the understandings that your characters are imagining their way toward and the sorts of self-reliant, mutually-empowering, communitarian, self-determining and networking processes they would be evolving and engaging in. I will finish the book. But I already know that Organic Democracy will only find feet or wings when there are more visionaries than me envisioning it. And, as a work-at-home free-lance with strong contemplative leanings living in a profoundly conservative southern US city, I’ve been wondering how to make the connections. I would like very much to join with you in this creative endeavor. I am always informed by your blog, have found no points of disagreement, though that’s not necessarily a good thing! Means I still need to sharpen my edges. Another way of opening this process out might be to engage in your/the community thought process an independent game designer/manufacturer or two. A sort of foundation of understandings — a mental environment of the sort your book and mine are creating and the group would be creating — could function as a platform on which a multiple-player world-making, or rather communities-making, game could be created with the intent that participants in the game, perhaps played on big screens in gathering places would be designing functional, peak-oil/post-carbon, sustainable, egalitarian communities suited to their locations and conditions…………. Well, you get my drift. I’m tweaked.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Open Space is one process .. Future Search (Weisbord and Janoff) and Real-Time Strategic Change (Jacobs and McKeown) are two others that derived from the OD domain that rely on a touchstone principle of imagining our preferred future .. and I am guessing that you already know this.Why do I mention the others ? Because as “we” get more sophisticated about addressing preferred futures, or as the need for creating them becomes even more urgent, one approach does not fit all … what I believe (or more-or-less know) is that all sorts of hybrid process design will take place, to help interested and engaged groups of people do their part, play their role in making a contribution to our collective preferred future.

  4. dataguy says:

    I work for a company that does scenario planning. I believe that you may have missed a key point about scenario planning. Scenarios are used to frame a SET of possible futures or as you described it future possibilities. We describe this as the cone of the future, with the scenarios describing points that lie on the outer rim of the wide end of the cone (the planning horizon point in time). The point is that the future is not likely to be a given scenario but to be a mix that lies somewhere within the bounds of the cone (if you defined your scenarios well). The idea is that if you have a strategic plan that can flourish in each of the scenarios (you create options to execute for differences in the scenarios and launch initiatives that are robust across the scenarios) then it should be sound enough to succeed in the actual future.If you created a set of scenarios and one of them

  5. Pat Keenan says:

    It seems that a combination of scenario planning and envisioning would help progress. The first would outline the old in the future, the second would outline the new in the future. Since it’s always a combination, and we take steps not jumps, it would be a more holistic view.

  6. Ron says:

    Dave, have you considered using genetic algorithms as a (partial) replacement for The Wisdom of Crowds. The problem that single-individual future-predictors have is that they don’t know how many individuals would react to population-wide stimuli (e.g., global warming, wars, plagues, etc.). Genetic algorithms are very good at that.

  7. John Maloney says:

    Hi Dave –You readers may appreciate this site.

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