4 Scenario Types: Creating Scenarios with Different Patterns of Change

As I have said on previous occasions, scenarios are a workhorse method for futurists.  Because they are so important to a lot of foresight work, over the years practitioners have developed a wide variety of methods for developing scenarios.  While I have previously introduced the TOCS-driven approach that I developed (see link, below), today I want to introduce another approach we have developed, one specifically intended to be easier to use while also being grounded in observed patterns of change.

One of the major steps in the 4 Steps to the Future model is “Futures.”  In the Futures step, I lay out a specific method for forecasting alternative scenarios that is based on a set of four scenario “types.”  These scenario types are based on different, basic patterns of change we observe in the everyday world: continuity (little-to-no change), incremental change, and abrupt change.


Figure 1: The Scenario-Building Worksheet from 4 Steps to the Future

Using these three basic patterns of change, we develop for simple alternatives for the scenarios:

Type A: Continuity (more of the same)

Type B: Incremental change, low level of disruption

Type C: incremental change, high level of disruption

Type D: Abrupt change

In the 4 Steps model participants build scenarios based on these four types, incorporating various historical and current information and data such as trends and emerging issues.  This framework for developing scenario forecasts, while straightforward, is useful for organizations – particularly those with more limited resources or bandwidth for conducting foresight work – for a number of reasons:

  • This set of scenario types ensures a range of very different possibilities
  • The scenarios are grounded in the dynamics of change
  • They provide easy-to-understand patterns of change that people can quickly envision
  • The scenario types are easy to remember and easy to “get”

To reiterate, this approach to scenario development was created to assist organizations where familiarity with foresight methods is low and/or the time and resources for doing foresight work is limited.  This method also carries my personal bias (and thus, VFS’s organizational bias) towards focusing on the how’s and why’s of change, rather than being solely concerned with the “end state” of forecasts.  Our intent is always to make clients more knowledgeable and more critical about how and why things could change, rather than being obsessed with trying to figure out a single, “right” future.

If you want to do a scenario exercise/project with your organization, and particularly if you don’t have a lot of time or money, then this approach can be a very useful option (especially if you want to avoid having to fall back on the 2×2 [axes of uncertainty] approach).


Lum’s Formula for Futures.

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