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SAMI 25th anniversary blog: 1991 Redux: The book that launched a thousand scenarios.

January 5, 2015

The futurist tells stories. Don Michael’s seminal 1987 essay of the same name offered three methodological injunctions for competent and responsible tellers of stories about futures:

  • Acknowledge both the multiple and problematic nature of the futures explored – and also of the descriptions and interpretations of the presents and pasts from which those futures are derived. Futures are subjective in origin and reception.
  • State the theory (or theories) of social change processes that create the futures your stories depict: what’s causing the changes depicted? Theories of change and evidence about change connect past and present to possible futures.
  • Remember that both conscious and unconscious needs get embedded within stories of the futures – the nature of the future world will be as much an expression of emotions as of deliberative thought and action. Stories evoke emotional connections to possible futures.

This offered a critical perspective, but wasn’t exactly a ‘how-to’ guide. Herman Kahn first injected the term ‘scenarios’ into the lexicon of the emerging futures field in 1967, and yet in the twenty years between publication of The Year 2000 and Michael’s essay, few easily implemented methods to create useful stories about the future had emerged. Scenario building was still primarily an activity of experts, think tanks, and modellers.

In 1991, Peter Schwartz’s The Art of the Long View brought scenario story-telling into the mainstream. Based on experiences in using strategic stories within business (Shell Oil) and for business and strategic interests (Stanford Research Institute), The Art of the Long View provided a clearly written and simple introduction to scenario building as foresight: heightening awareness of change and its impacts, and thinking both long-term and systemically. This process has since come to be known more generally as scenario planning. James Ogilvy helped Schwartz create the The Art of the Long View’s appendix, a facilitator’s guide to group scenario building and strategic thinking in eight steps:

  1. Identify the focal issue or decision
  2. Identify key forces for success or failure of the focal issue2x2 diagram example
  3. Explore what driving forces might affect the key forces for success or failure
  4. Rank the driving forces by greatest importance and greatest uncertainty
  5. Select the ‘scenario logics’ – the two most important and uncertain driving forces, each expressed as a pair of opposite outcomes at the extremes of a continuum
  6. Use those uncertainties as axes, create a matrix of four windows into possible alternative futures, and then flesh out the stories of change unfolding in each of those four windows of possibility.
  7. Consider the implications for the focal issue of the futures depicted by each story – this is now often referred to as ‘wind-tunnelling’ – how does the focal issue play out in the context of each future?
  8. Create a detailed set of leading indicators and signposts of change for each scenario that can be monitored as early warnings of which scenario the organisation or community might be facing.

This simplified the process and made it easy to facilitate and to teach. Even people completely new to thinking about the future could read The Art of the Long View, get together with colleagues, stakeholders, their community, and follow the step-by-step instructions to draft and explore their own set of strategic scenarios.

Understandably the method took off like a hot air balloon. It sells thousands of copies each year, and is required reading in business schools worldwide. As a result, the single most familiar method for creating scenarios, instantly recognizable, is the axes of uncertainty approach.  But what are its weaknesses?

In Learnings from the Long View (2011), Schwartz offers his own critique of its weaknesses. Reviewing several illustrative cases from his long history of practice, he suggests the following:

  1. It’s easy to leap to conclusions. Always ask, “How could I be wrong? What other interpretations or scenarios might exist for this situation?”
  2. Diversity really does matter. Devising too narrow a range of scenarios can be dangerous – ensure some participants and some elements present in the process and its results make you uncomfortable.
  3. Scenarios aren’t just about the intellectual challenge; they are about the people around the table. Check their agendas at the door – willingness to participate for the wrong reasons (strong-arming acceptance of The Official Future) will sabotage the process as much as forced unwilling participation.
  4. When creating scenarios, always ask the following questions:
    1. Could the data be wrong?
    2. Could potential problems be bigger than anyone thinks?
    3. How can I challenge my deepest assumptions?

It is this last provocative question that is most often the source of academic critique of this process – that as practiced, this approach rarely challenges all the assumptions of the Official Future, taking for granted the continuing necessity and viability of current economic and political power structures. From a practitioner’s point of view, the basic process as described above lacks any explicit steps to uncover and challenge current assumptions, particularly about worldviews and values.

But as SAMI Consulting regularly proves, the genius of a simple and straightforward method is its ability to meld with other simple, powerful methods. SAMI has in the past decade taken on the challenge of addressing many of these ‘lessons learned’ by combining the basic axes of uncertainty approach with more recent futures techniques such as Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) (Inayatullah), the Verge General Practice Framework for Futures Studies and Foresight (Lum), and the Three Horizons Framework (Sharpe). CLA and Verge in particular are useful in digging beneath observable surface trends. They both ask practitioners to identify shifts in underlying paradigms and mental models, values, and worldviews that might underpin the evolution of one possible future or another, or that distinguish one possible future from others.

Foresight and scenario planning are arts of exploration and conversation. Like any conversation, bringing in new topics and new ways of seeing old topics keeps it fresh, interesting, and productive. Let’s applaud how this 1991 publication has extended the reach of foresight, and work to improve the insights that we can grasp.

Happy New Year to all of you and your families and friends.

Written by Wendy Schultz.

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