How to Think Like a Scenario Planner

How to Think Like a Scenario Planner

Those who want to think like a scenario planner need to adopt a new mindset.  Yes,scenario planning is a process. Those who treat scenario planning only as a process, however, achieve suboptimal results. Scenario planning, the analysis of the uncertainties, and the authoring of the narratives takes place in the imagination of the team creating the scenarios. Turning uncertainties into a matrix proves pretty easy. Writing credible stories about the future that challenge and inspire, provoke and invoke—that’s a lot harder.

Here are ten personal skills good scenario planners exhibit, either by birth or through acquisition—and all good scenario planners nurture these skills until they become the dominant mode of thinking.

How to think like a scenario planner: adopt these ten mental positions

  1. Be humble and let go. If you think you know how the future will turn out, you will run the risk of leaning into scenarios you want to happen, rather than letting the possibilities unfurl. Good scenario planners let go of their assumptions, biases, and preconceived ideas. They embrace the possibilities found in uncertainty. In fact, letting go starts with admitting there are uncertainties: elements of the future that no person, no business, and no government can predict, or in most cases, control.
  2. Practice mental acuity and flexibility. Scenarios force people to go places they have not been and confront outcomes they don’t want to imagine. Scenarios make people uncomfortable. The discomfort drives the scenario work. Thinking about what it took for an imagined future state to arrive—or how some future people overcame a seemingly insurmountable obstacle requires the ability to tap into a wide variety of data, subjects, and ideas. It requires synthesis, a letting go, a picking up, a remixing. Scenario planners need to bounce between the most dire forecasts, and the most optimistic while staying attuned to the exercise of exploration, rather than the tendency toward confirmation.
  3. Nurture creativity. While mental acuity and flexibility play at the edges of the known to find new combinations, creativity seeks to create new substance, new possibilities, and new realities. Many of the ideas posited for a future set ten years in the future will arrive without a current analog. Scenario planners need to help spur their teams, and themselves, to imagine what could be.
  4. Develop a healthy skepticism. Challenge everything. I once sat with a college president who would spin scenarios out, but he didn’t use the formal logic of scenarios as the basis. He took a random set of ideas and strung them together with a new set of values—regardless if the values belonged in that string of associations or not. Even though he was older and more steeped in his discipline than I was, I pushed back, not with alternatives to the ideas, but alternatives to the constructs. I did feel a little bit like Han Solo when I said, “That’s not how scenario planning works.”I stand on stages and in virtual meetings with futurists who make ascertains based on their “knowledge,” but there is no knowledge about the future. We are all equally ignorant. No data crosses the transom between now and the future. If anyone asserts that they know, question and challenge them without hesitation. When faced with a prediction, find the variable at the heart of the declaration and use that to launch alternatives.

    When faced with a prediction, find the variable at the heart of the declaration and use that to launch alternatives.

  5. Use logic to frame new narratives. While scenarios certainty spin fictional narratives, their development entails a strong sense of logic. Good scenario planners assign values to variables that make sense in the world under construction. Testing for internal consistency produces one of the most difficult exercises in a scenario planning project: including all of the uncertainties as characters in the future narratives and assigning them a value internally consistent with the story.As with those who spin disconnected scenario yarns or adopted assertions because experts believe in their rightness, plowing through scenario logic without consideration for the internal consistency of variables creates less than useful tools for clients. Good scenario planners diligently craft stories, that while fiction and clearly speculative, hang on an internal logic that makes them credible tools for exploring possible futures.
  6. Look for novelty to drive innovation. The stories become but one step along the way to realizing the value of scenarios. Good scenario planners look beyond implications to areas of new permissions, disruptions, and combinations. Novelty may come from a situation, a regulation, a demonstration, or some other narrative element that creates a context that could lead to innovation if it is explored.
  7. Don’t be afraid of intuition and qualitative data. There is no data about the future. None. There is no quantitative version of scenario planning, though some AI researchers hope that their predictive engines will breakthrough enough to identify valid probabilities for actions on a large canvas. That isn’t going to happen. The future is too big, too complex, and too far away for any algorithm to construct a plausible narrative. People do not need data about the future to imagine the future. Creating futures informed by the present, and the possibilities in the components of the present…that is our superpower.
  8. Monitor your mental peripheral vision. Good scenario planners look around corners. They look ahead while being aware of what is approaching, perhaps passing. The concept in focus, say, the future of work, isn’t just about work. It is about living, and education, it is about economic values that lead to what we value, and it is about the social values that reinforce or challenge economic mechanisms. Look too hard at the thing you are trying to solve for and you will miss many of the elements that will ultimately lead to the context that will shape that thing’s future.
  9. Be willing to move from discussion to action. Scenario planning appears to be an exercise in navel-gazing. The biggest value in scenario planning lies with the abandonment of the scenarios before anyone turns their implications into actions. In some situations, scenario planning may result in futures that for particular projects make no sense. If no one can imagine a future in which a project results in value to the organization or its customers, it should be wound down. If a future story suggests an investment in a technology to unbridle a narrative, then make that investment. Scenarios are a playground for strategy, and strategy is all about getting from here to there.
  10. Pay attention to the world around you. The future does not unfold at a predictable pace, or in a place easy to anticipate. Those who want to remain valid in a discussion about the future need to monitor the world broadly, looking for social, economic, environmental, political, and technological shifts that will influence the questions under consideration.

Challenging your mental model

Scenario planning is an unnatural act. It requires people to perform mental activities often in conflict with day-to-day work–often contrary to the way they are taught to think in school. Scenario planning asks its adherents to challenge everything, to pick the world apart and reconstruct it, to hold multiple truths in suspension simultaneously, and to imagine the underpinnings of innovations that have not yet occurred.

Scenario planning asks its adherents to challenge everything, to pick the world apart and reconstruct it, to hold multiple truths in suspension simultaneously, and to imagine the underpinnings of innovations that have not yet occurred.

Scenario planning asks practitioners to live in a variable future, yet find it within themselves the discipline to delve into the deepest levels of the current strategy in order to reinforce it or dislodge it in favor of some emergent path leading to a new endpoint.


For more on scenario planning from Serious Insights click here.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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