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New developments in scenario thinking over the last 20 years

July 23, 2014

Angela Wilkinson of the OECD asked at a recent symposium at Warwick Business School – what developments have there been in scenarios in the last 20 years?. It is my perception that it has been easier to make advances in methodology in the horizon scanning arena than in the scenario creation or scenario use arenas.

However: some changes are apparent.

There has been a reaction against “bog standard” corporate or organisation sponsored scenario reports, written by a small team and with no connection to anyone in the organisation. These beg the question “so what?”. We in SAMI, like most reputable futurists, ask “why do you want scenarios” before starting any work. The project may be started after a Board discussion, but needs to be followed fairly soon after by some structured scoping – “what question are we trying to answer? over what timescale? with what scope? and what sort of actions do we expect who to take?” Without such preparatory work, the exercise will not have a firm basis for action.

Scenarios 20 years ago were often thought of as an analysis tool, but now are often also used as a communication medium. Scenarios are stories, pictures, metaphors: images of how the future might become – they may be written in from a future standpoint, or as a narrative to describe the journey there. They are visual, in their use of diagrams and memorable through their names and slideware. These attributes make scenarios accessible to people outside the creative team that crafted them, both inside and outside the organisation. Over the last 20 years, we have seen scenarios used as a framework for innovative client and stakeholder engagement, changing the conversation from a transactional one to a sharing of views.

Some advances have been in connection with understanding human dynamics. For instance, horizon scanners typically embrace 100+ factors driving potential change. People “with day jobs” mostly have an upper limit of 15-20 factors that they can work with. We in SAMI have experimented with a number of techniques for bridging between the 100+ and the 15-20, including Three Horizons (see Bill Sharpe’s “Three Horizons”, Triarchy Press, 2013), VERGE (http://www.slideshare.net/wendyinfutures/summary-of-verge-ethnographic-futures-framework-devised-by-richard-lum-and-michele-bowman) and choosing from a deck of cards, one future factor on each card

Phil Hadridge of idenk (http://www.idenk.com ) comments that “I have focused on ways to make the group process as simple as possible – along the lines of scenarios as strategic conversations”. This emphasises the essentially social nature of scenarios, during the creation, testing and sharing of scenarios. We have recently seen a trend towards organisations with a senior management team of 30-40+ people engaging them all during the information gathering phase and the scenario creation workshop. This requires military type organisation!

And finally, what is a successful use of scenarios? Organisations report most success after a widely based scenario process, leading to a change in culture and assumptions in the organisation. But during the last 20 years we have found that scenarios developed over three or four hours can help organisations to frame their strategy in relation to well understood challenges, with the right background work or basing it on a platform of existing research. Sometimes success is not investing, or investing to head off a scenario thought to be undesirable. Other times it is understanding that parts of the business are in different scenarios – perhaps leading to a break up of the organisation. And other organisations find that they are able to face both palatable and undesirable futures with more confidence.

Written by Gill Ringland.

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