A Spectrum of Scenario Use

This past week we were in the (unseasonably mild) United Kingdom working out of our Oxford office and attending a conference at the Warwick Business School on innovations in scenario use. Admittedly it was a fairly futures-geeky conference that was designed for an academic audience concerned with “scenario planning,” that particular approach to developing and using scenarios that was popularized by the Global Business Network (and instantly recognizable for its 2×2 matrix). The organizers were quite welcoming and we met a number of great folks who had some great questions for the practice and many who had long experience using it.

I myself presented on my TOCS-driven scenario forecasting method, an early version of which was published here and in Compass, the newsletter of the Association of Professional Futurists. For those not familiar with my ground-breaking method (jk), the method can be summed up in the following formula:

TOCS + TEI + Ins + Int = futuresalt

The thrust of the presentation was that the method I have evolved over the past several years has been most heavily influenced by two things: my academic training under Professor Jim Dator at the University of Hawai‘i’s alternative futures program and a particular effort years ago by the RAND Corporation to explore the use of ensembles of scenarios for long-term policy analysis. On the academic training side, the most important point to understand is the lesson that all futures work should be based on a theory of change and stability (TOCS). As a consequence, I have a professional bias towards employing TOCS in my futures work, and that bias has absolutely influenced the type of methodological innovation I tend to pursue.

Pulling the lens back just a bit, the conference prompted another consideration of the “anticipation-provocation” spectrum of scenario use, a very simply model I use to assess scenario use and to prescribe its use. Put simply, I like to consider the use of scenarios as existing along a spectrum of intention: one end of the spectrum is concerned with anticipating change while the other end of the spectrum is concerned with provoking new thinking.


Anticipation-Provocation Spectrum

This spectrum is a simple one and is perhaps obvious to others, but I like how it accepts a wide range of scenario methods and simultaneously reminds the researcher/facilitator/consultant of the need to properly align their intent with their methods. Moving along the spectrum, the further towards the anticipating change end of the spectrum the more you are squeezing to try and “get the future right,” whereas the further towards the other end of the spectrum the less you are concerned that the scenarios could actually happen and the more you are simply interested in seeing people come up with new ideas.

As I pointed out in the presentation, in developing my theory-driven method for scenarios, I’m hoping to swing the pendulum towards the middle of the spectrum. Now that the conference has prompted me to reflect a bit more on my preferred method for forecasting scenarios, on the anticipation-provocation spectrum, and on my preferences for scenario use in general, I think I can be a bit more articulate about how I prefer to use scenarios in futures and foresight work.

At this point in my career I’ve really come to prefer using scenarios as a way to help flush new logical possibilities out of the intellectual underbrush. This is not about believing that scenarios can truly define the absolute boundaries of possibility for your issue, but rather is about using theory, logic, and human intuition to identify many more of the possibilities inherent in the future than are recognized by the existing mental models of an individual or a particular group. There’s always much more that can actually happen than any one (or several) of us understands, and scenario forecasting is an excellent way to address that inherent intellectual limitation.

In this sense, I like scenarios for their ability to help identify a broader and more diverse set of logical possibilities; for their ability to help us expand our understanding of the range of logically possible futures. But I don’t generally put too much stock in individual scenarios as in any way predictive of what will come to pass. Nor do I generally see scenario projects as able to mark some sort of definitive boundary for the future. Then again, that is partially because of the specific projects on which I tend to work. Others, who might do more creativity-focused projects or who might work on projects with narrower scopes might be much more inclined to employ methods closer to either end of the anticipation-provocation spectrum.

In the next post I will begin to explore how to marry the anticipation-provocation spectrum for scenario projects with different categories of uncertainty. This will be in the hopes of aligning some of the different prominent scenario methods with different types of uncertainty.


Theory-Driven Scenario Development (slide deck)

Curry, A and Schultz, W. (2009) “Roads Less Travelled: Different Methods, Different Futures.” Journal of Futures Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 35-60.

Schwartz, P. (1996) The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World.

van der Heijden, K. Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation.

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