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Update on a previous post: Shell – One world , two distinct scenarios

January 7, 2015

Using Scenarios to drive the direction, culture and effectiveness of an organisation are exemplified by the Scenarios Team at Shell. Nobody would argue that the last 40 years have been straightforward for Shell; when Shell started working with Scenarios in the early 1970s it did so with the intention of enabling its leaders to make effective decisions and prepare for a variety of situations. As the world has developed to become more turbulent, more complex and more unpredictable, the work of Shell’s Scenarios Team has provided inspiration for many.

At the very heart of Shell’s thinking is the philosophy that a leader should focus on both “Critical Uncertainties” – what is unknown but would have a major impact on the business and “Current Certainties” – what is known but may involve unexpected discontinuities (Shell Scenarios, 2014).

This was the thinking that led St Andrews University to recruit a senior Shell scenario planner, Dr Gareth Price, to head up a new “St Andrews Management Institute” – the forerunner of SAMI.

Back in 1992 Shell set out their “Global Scenarios”,¹ a series of stories about the next 30 years that would help prepare for change whilst simultaneously challenging the mental processes used by decision-makers and creating a common language.

The work introduced two opposing futures that could drastically affect Shell’s world: “New Frontiers” and “Barricades”.

Shell has continued to work with scenarios to the present day, and as we continue to reflect on 25 years of SAMI helping organisations to make robust decisions on uncertain times, let’s see if the unthinkable of 1992 became the plausible of 2014…….

The new world that Shell imagined was one of a “Liberalisation Revolution”, a world which included more revolutionary change than at any other point in history. The revolution would include the demise of authoritarian political regimes, political pluralism and increased privatisation.

Is this our world? From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the recent “Arab Spring”, the political world is almost unrecognisable to 1992. In 1992, only a handful of Latin American countries were democracies, now only a few are otherwise. China continues to open itself up to the West, dialogue exists with Iran and international investment continues apace in Africa and South East Asia.

The end of Apartheid in 1994 signalled that political pluralism was not an ideal but real and achievable when previously unthinkable. The world today was imagined by Shell in 1992. We live and work in a time that many would have dismissed as “fantasy” back in 1992.

Whilst imaging a future is challenging, considering different responses to the future world is critical.

Shell’s two opposing futures examined conflicting responses to liberalisation.

Liberalisation may evoke a positive response and inspire nations and organisations to seize opportunities, thus creating a “Virtuous Circle”. Likewise, liberalisation may evoke negative responses, perhaps with a climate of fear and resistance accompanying threats to individual, corporate and cultural identity.

Have we seen elements of both futures in the last 25 years? We clearly have! Perhaps there now exists a combined scenario where resistance in some parts of the world mirrors (and fuels) advancement elsewhere.

When Shell considered “New Frontiers” they were able to look for pockets of a positive future in the present, identifying opportunities for growth and capitalising on their flexibility.

With “Barricades” they were identifying signs of future negativity, thus giving them the tools to avoid costly and damaging investments.

In Shell’s words they were able to see “that the future is shaped not only by the past, but what we think is possible and by the choices that we make”.

In ours, “there is no one real future, simply one that you can create yourself”.

Like Shell, we are excited about what tomorrow may bring!

Written by James Blackmore-Wright.

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¹ Shell’s “Global Scenarios” can be found at


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