Scenarios: Are You Using them the Right Way?

“Scenarios” are a very common tool used by organizations of all types to structure their thinking about the future.  Despite their growing ubiquity in industry, government, and civil society, or perhaps because of it, there are many different – and sometimes conflicting – opinions as to what scenarios are, how they should be used, and therefore how they should be created.

Put simply, scenarios are descriptions of alternative possible futures. Scenarios are one of the workhorse tools in futures studies, playing a central role both in anticipating possible change and in generating visions of preferred futures. Scenarios are a mainstay tool for academically trained futurists because they allow us to:

  1. Deal with uncertainty and limited information by forecasting multiple scenarios at a time;
  2. Explore and convey complex situations and changes in an easy-to-understand format, and;
  3. Provide groups with compelling images of counter-intuitive or unconsidered possibilities about the future.

As mentioned above, there are many notions about what scenarios are and how they should be used.  In a closely related issue, there are a wide variety of methods for producing scenarios.  Making the best use of “scenarios” for your organization involves being clear about their intended role in your organization, and that requires an understanding of the different uses to which scenarios are often put.

So, let’s distinguish between two basic uses for scenarios: forecasting possibilities and provoking broader thinking.  Note that while these two uses are not mutually exclusive, in practice you will often find groups leaning definitively towards one side or the other.

Alternative Uses for Scenarios

For those organizations using scenarios to forecast possibilities, they see the value of scenarios in addressing complexity and in reducing uncertainty.  This value manifests in the production of a set of multiple forecasts, each scenario representing a logically possible outcome.  In using scenarios this way, these organizations are hoping – in one way or another – to cover more “ground” about the future and thereby increase the chances that they have glimpsed or touched upon important aspects of the future that will actually come to pass.

In contrast (sometimes), those organizations that use scenarios more to provoke new thinking tend to see the value of scenarios in pulling people out of the present and guiding them (or forcing them, as the case may be) to consider their assumptions about what the present contains and what the future could bring.  For those using scenarios more for their provocation value, they are hoping to shake up people’s thinking and thereby open up new “spaces” in which they can think about even more divergent futures that they might actually prefer to pursue.

scenariomethodsspectrum

Figure 1: Spectrum of Scenario Uses

In the case of the former group, they are often genuinely trying to forecast, i.e. cast forward logically from the present.  In the case of the latter group, they are much more often engaged in various types of backcasting or incasting exercises, where the scenario end states are either prefigured or built first and the causal chains of logic that connect them to the present are established after the fact.  This is where the intended use of the scenarios must be connected with the appropriate process for creating that type of scenario.

Alternative Processes for Creating Scenarios

If you’re interested in forecasting possible futures, then the process you will want will in some way be based on projecting forward from the present, which in turn will need some form of theory of change or a model of interaction.  In other words, you will want to base your work on more or less formal models.  Examples of models will run the gamut from quantitative models like climate change models or statistical models on one end of the spectrum to qualitative theories of change on the other end.  This is what will allow you to start with the present and – in various ways, dependent on the types of models you use – introduce events and developments and explore the interactions between variables and ultimately view different possible outcomes.

On the other hand, if you’re more interested in using scenarios to provoke new thinking, then you will be more interested in processes that encourage or force people to leap beyond the present to some time period out in the future.  Here you have a broader range of approaches that includes everything from 2×2 “axes of uncertainty” approaches to cross impact analyses or morphological frameworks to “archetype” frameworks that provide the possible end states already outline in broad strokes.  The common thread that connects this array of methods is that in one way or another they enable people to (essentially) step straight from the present to some possible future state without first determining the causal chains and emergent patterns that – sequentially and in parallel – logical gave rise to those end states.

The vast majority of scenario-focused projects that I’ve witnessed, read about, or been involved in have, in fact, been of the latter type, provocation type.  What is important to understand, however, is that in more than a few of those cases, many of the participants and not a few of the owners of those projects actually conceived of the scenarios as performing the former, forecasting function for their organization.  This begins to shed light on at least one of the big reasons why many smart individuals come to question the validity of scenario projects: a disconnect between the intended use of scenarios and the methods that were used to produce them.

I think this has contributed to something of a fall off in enthusiasm in some quarters for scenario work, particularly the 2×2 matrix approach popularized by GBN.  While professional futurists have a number of important critiques to level at the method, part of the relative disillusionment with the method has, I think, stemmed from this disconnect between what participants and audiences perceive to be their intended use and the evaluation of the process that created them.

2x2matrixgeneric

Figure 2: Generic “2×2” Critical Uncertainties Matrix

Many clients (and many practitioners) of the 2×2 approach have conceived of scenarios created through this type of process as being good for scoping out the range of possible futures that an organization will face, so much so that they typically tie strategy development frameworks to the process.  But what most don’t understand is that the 2×2 matrix approach is in fact a provocation type of scenario approach and not, as many proponents of the method might argue, a forecasting approach.  Why?  Because the classic GBN 2×2 approach is essentially a “what if” exercise in which the parameters of the four alternative end states are prefigured; all that’s (essentially) left to the participants is to fill in the logical details that derive from those parameters (which sometimes could be, as was GBN’s hope, surprising and non-intuitive).  Rather than starting from the present and proceeding slowly towards a set of possible futures, the outlines of which you don’t at all know when you begin, the 2×2 approach leaps straight to (broadly) defining the possible end states and then working inward to “flesh” them out.

Aligning Ends and Ways

The US military has a very simple and straight forward definition of strategy, one that requires three core components of ends, ways, and means to be aligned.  Borrowing from them for just a moment, we can say that when it comes to selecting the tools and methods an organization wants to deploy for its foresight work, it is critically important that the ends and the means of a proposed project are in alignment.  Thus, when an organization is considering “doing scenarios” as part of their upcoming round of foresight and/or planning, it is incumbent upon them to clearly articulate what role they intend the scenarios to play in the overall process (the ends) and then to select the method (the way) most appropriate to their ends and their organizational culture.

 


Futures studies: an academic field that has as its central concern the understanding and anticipation of change in society.

VFS Primer on Foresight and Futures Studies

The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World.  A classic book written by Peter Schwartz on both “scenario planning” using the 2×2 method and GBN.

Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation.  Another classic text from the heydays of GBN-style scenario development.”

“Roads Less Travelled: Different Methods, Different Futures.”  A solid article exploring the differences between several methods for producing scenarios.

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2 comments

  1. […] such a choice always provokes a desire in me to point out to the participant group that there are many ways to develop scenarios and many different intended uses for their […]

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