Scenario Planning in a Box (Blog!)

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I first started ‘Scenario Planning’ in health care over 20 years ago.  In a range of sectors it was starting to be popular, following the early successes at Shell.   Some in the NHS wanted to give it a go.  As a technique it has been in vogue ever since, through the peak fads in Y2K planning, it is now soothing leaders in austerity and turbulent times.

However scenario thinking, as I prefer to refer to it, is often misunderstood. A few ‘truths’ that are important in my scenario work are shared below. In recent years idenk has ranged  into Higher Education, revisited health systems and rippled through publishing, academic medicine, global health, IT in schools and conservation, in both the UK and abroad. I hope this knowledge and wisdom works for you.

1) There are three important timeframes to consider: the past and the present, as much as the future.

2) Always start with a clear understanding of the key questions you want (need!) to answer – question fanning is very helpful for this. Ignoring this stage is very common and leads to unfocused efforts. Take time to find out what others already know about your questions – through cascade interviews and web searching.

3) There are three ‘schools’ of futures work that trade under ‘scenario planning’: Predictive, Plausible and Preferred. For us forecasting trends isn’t really scenario work (through it can be jolly useful – and interesting, and wrong!).

4) So there are really just two sorts of scenarios: the possible and the desired. The Shell work is fundamentally about the ‘what if’ conversation that scenarios help with – prompts for conversations that explore trends in the key uncertainties outside of a group or organisations immediate control. The best example of a collaborative visioning process (that also explored undesired Scenarios) is still the Mont Fleur experience in South Africa 20 years ago – incidentally led by some staff seconded by Shell. This sort of ‘preferred future’ work prompts consideration of ‘why not’ and ‘what next’ thinking – it is about The WWW: what, who, when.

5) Scenarios are stories, pictures, metaphors: images of how the future might become – they may be written in the future, or as a narrative to describe the journey there. They are visual, in their use of diagrams and memorable through their names and slideware.

6) Allied methods are robustness testing, systems mapping and simulation. Two principles inform the judgment of which methods to use: what is best suited to understanding the question you want to answer and what pair or blend of methods provides the best ‘triangulation’. For example, behavioural simulation is very powerful in exploring the cumulative impacts of different individual interactions on choices in the short term.  But it is much less good at answering what will happen with technology and demography over a longer period of time, for example.

7) Other tools to help teams move from thinking about what to do to getting stuff done (‘minding the gap’ between inspiration and implementation) are: strategic marketing, operational planning, continuous improvement, values into practice and staff engagement. These can play into a thorough Scenario Planning process by helping to inform answers to questions such as “what do we need to keep an eye on, what is robust to do now, what new skills do we need, what should we start researching, who do we need to influence or get to know”?

8) Fundamentally good scenario work is concerned with choices today. The futures we imagine are often merely a different way of seeing what is emerging today. The psycho-dynamics of the future are neatly explained by Arie de Gues (building on early psychologists such as Bowlby and Emery): he talks of scenarios as the ‘transitional object’ to help groups productively engage with the worries (anxieties) about today. Read more of Arie’s work here – where he packages many of the insights from heading planning at Shell in a set of memorable stories and illustrations.

9) Scenario work is fundamentally a learning process – reframing deeply held assumptions requires conversation. We like the emphasis of van der Heijden on ‘the art of strategic conversation’

10) There is a massive literature, some of which I have contributed to.

11) Be aware of what you know – and what you don’t. What is your content knowledge – and what process skills do you have to facilitate the process. Where do you need support?

12) Think about what you can get for nothing through the internet, such as this timeline and many previous sets of scenarios.

13) There is a a competitive consultancy market servicing the clients that demand scenario work, in which I tend to collaborate. Please ask for more tips and pointers, for example some fun futures cartoons and slides (eg The Spectrum of Futures Methods, and the Fan of Scenario types) and workshop tools and templates, such as in this earlier blog.

14) In commissioning any project or assignment make sure you know how much you want to spend – I do believe that the Parato Principle might have been invented with Scenario Planning in mind – you can get massive returns from relatively low cost investment with careful pre work with surveys, literature searches, Delphi consultations, interviews and VoxPops.

See here for me (Phil) talking about the two sorts of scenarios at an event last year. Many felt I argued for the importance of ‘classic’ Shell style scenario work over the ‘preferred’ school. Do you agree?

Finally, why invest, why bother?…in well over 20 years of working on strategy and organisation development I have yet to find a single method that achieves so much. Scenario Planning is a bit of Trojan Horse. It promises ‘planning’ and ‘analysis’ and ‘insight’ and also delivers improved individual capacity and skills (facilitation, presentation and thinking) plus improved and sustained interaction for team development: shared goals, productive conflict, increased trust and greater corporacy. For this reason our scenario work, more than anything, has shaped the sort of wider help I am able to give now. Sometimes I think: “It transformed me”. Might it transform you and your leadership too?


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