Scenarios and human resources: foresight preparation
Scenario planning is often a strategic program driven by executives to help an organization map out its strategic options against a background of uncertainty. Scenario planning should no longer be held captive in the board room, or the executive suite. The new age of uncertainty affects not just strategic choices, but increasingly infuses strategic context into the organization at a rapid pace, forcing line managers to adapt quickly to changing business, social, and environmental issues.
This change in business reality means that organizations must build their strategic capacity, their ability to monitor critical factors, understand signals associated with those factors and anticipate change more effectively. While organizations outwardly talk about a return-to-normal and stabilization, the future of life, work, and everything going forward will likely remain buffeted by uncertainty. Organizations that learn how to navigate uncertainty will be at a competitive advantage to those who employ wishful thinking about a return to normal, or hubris about their ability to shape the future.
While organizations should continue to invest in technologies and politics that help them achieve their goals—and they should create an aspirational future that reflects their ideals—they should also invest in the capacity to monitor events that may disrupt their trajectories, in good and in bad ways. The only tool that effectively arms organizations with strategic foresight capacity remains scenario planning.
No amount of machine learning trained by near-realtime data will emerge to forecast the future effectively. Data and statistics extrapolate the present with minor variations in parameters. Until there is data, there is no input. Scenarios unleash the uniquely human gift of imagination to craft diverse stories about the future that help individuals and organizations see beyond bias and assumption to burgeoning threats and breakthrough opportunities, and other changes that will derail plans, force assertions to miss their mark and stall processes with mismatched inputs and outputs. In a world of uncertainty, anticipation and foresight become survival skills, not just strategic weapons.
The following sections suggest six reasons human resources should drive the charge to better prepare for change by making scenarios part of the organization’s strategic capacity. The more people understand how to navigate the future, the more likely they are to help it see new threats and opportunities, and to also understand significant shifts that may not rest upon a foundation of deep data and evidence but are rather informed by weak signals and speculative logic in anticipation of imagined changes steadily reaching fruition. Scenarios should be a whole organization capability, empowering people with the skills they need to recognize and steer through change.
Scenarios and Human Resources: Teaching Agility
As I wrote in People Matters, agility proves a very difficult skill to teach. But as with other skills that benefit from simulation, agile thinking emerges from scenario work. Scenarios force people into uncomfortable situations that challenge their assumptions, offer new perspectives, and help them re-perceive the world to reveal insights about problems or inspirations for innovation.
Teaching agile thinking does not require company-specific scenarios. Any set of relevant scenarios used in a workshop will challenge people. The goal is one of self-discovery. The stories present new plausible circumstances, that if taken as true during the exercise, challenge frameworks upon which concepts, projects, products and services are built–suggesting that those items require reexamination if they are to gain resilience, or that they require contingencies should characteristics of the various future surface. Ideas once considered a fait accompli get called back into question.
In professional development applications scenarios also become personal as people realize that their personal lives, not just their work, may be built upon false assumptions about the future.
Scenarios change perspectives for all but the most resolute participants, creating a new sense of awareness about uncertainty and a more loosely coupled association with assumption. After scenario planning workshops people are more likely to let go of ideas that become intractable when evidence is presented, and more willing to experiment because they feel a greater sense of co-creation even in the face of forces over which they have no control. Where they do have control, they are more likely to take action, informing that action with more strategic context than they might previously have applied.
Agile thinking focuses on acceptance. I ask workshop attendees to identify the uncertainties most related to their work and post them someplace visible to remind them daily of the important factors that will influence their decisions, and for which they have little information about their future state. Scenario planning helps leaders at least recognize and acknowledge what they don’t know and adds a robust way of considering alternatives under uncertainty.
Agile thinking encourages perpetual learning and heightened awareness. One never knows where change will manifest, or when.
Build Strategic Capacity
Agile thinking prepares people to confront the uncertainties of the future, accept them, and consider what might be possible. Agile thinking is a necessary precursor to strategic dialog.
Scenarios insist on dialog. They can’t be presented or read without engaging in a conversation about what they mean, or commonly after first exposure, how overwhelming they seem. They form a critical part of the learning cycles that inform concepts, shape perceptions and apprise decision-making.
If strategy captures a set of intentions that enable agility (see 12 Characteristics Of Strategy: What Strategy Is And Isn’t) acting on those intentions constantly redefines the organization. Every decision and its consequences redefines organizations, and even if subtly, invalidates some set of assumptions that people may cling to in the absence of agile thinking.
Strategy is a constant dialog about what to do, the impact of what has been done, and the vision about what could and should be done. Scenarios create a canvas for dialog that distances participants in strategic dialog from their closely held association or belief in ideas. It creates skepticism about the validity of all ideas, forcing revaluation and revalidation of those ideas in light of the unfolding future, not on an extrapolation of the past.
Human resources must assist organizations in crafting mental models that allow strategic dialog to take hold. They need to release and nurture the strategic capacity of the organization, for leaders, managers and those with potential to lead, not just current executives, or those with strategic planning titles.
Recruiting and Retention
Scenarios can help HR shape the narrative about the future in a more sophisticated way than expensive, aspirational videos that convey only the good side, the positive of the story. Scenarios provide a necessary humbleness in the face of uncertainty, a willingness to admit that much about the future is unknown. At the same time, scenarios reflect a commitment to a process that actively engages the unknown, confronting change head-on in order to closely watch how it unfolds, and making the promise to adapt at the pace of change.
A more honest and sophisticated representation of an organization’s approach to change can prove a powerful recruiting narrative that differentiates short-sighted organizations prone to painting disingenuous self-portraits. Organizations that adopt scenarios planning may transparently share their limitations and the risks they face and demonstrate a willingness to invest in understanding and action.
Scenarios also strategically inform workforce planning. Rather than a single set of assumptions about the future, scenarios offer several perspectives upon which models of the future workforce can be built. Certain scenarios may suggest new skills, a different mix of skills, different working relationships, varied geographical distribution, or other factors that will not simply change increments of a plan but suggest radically divergent workforces to meet the needs of the futures under examination.
Different futures require different configurations. Different social configurations. Different economic configurations. And new organizational configurations. Scenarios may reveal the need to create new functions, retire existing ones, start new divisions, forge new partnerships and dissolve old ones.
Scenarios also offer the opportunity to explore configurations that may prove more resilient if implemented in the near term, alleviating the pressure of reconfiguration under stress in the future.
By running organizational designs through scenarios, human resources gain a tool that helps them imagine the consequences of substantive organizational change before implementation.
Work Experience Design
Designing organizations only addresses the structural factors that prepare for execution. Organizations also need to design work experiences that align with the possible futures, creating contingencies where necessary. The collaboration vendor community built their brands on the precept of work anywhere, anytime—in a world compressed in space and time by software. Most organizations resisted, using it instead to support traveling workers or meetings among those in distributed offices. COVID-19 pushed toward a new distributed work model, and the virus’s persistence has made the new model take on permanence.
The Freelance Planet scenario my team developed at Microsoft anticipated not only the mish-mash of technology that workers would need, and their self-reliance for support, but also the Gig Economy that presaged many of the experiences that would spread widely during the pandemic. Freelance Planet was far from idealistic as people struggled to perform in one job all the while seeking the next, and required businesses to manage hundreds of divergent work relationships to cobble together a workforce. The Freelance Planet scenario did compel those of us who spent so much time in this future to be prepared for the pandemic with our knowledge of multiple video conferencing systems, the best internet money could buy, good printers and scanners, noise-canceling headphones, and a place to work out of the path of everyday life.
While not all aspects of Freelance Planet came to fruition, enough of it did that a wider distribution would have helped keep its ideas at the forefront of strategic insight.
With scenarios, HR can also explore additional models, and perhaps introduce new elements in anticipation of need, rather than in reaction to crisis. Freelance Planet has happened. What’s next?
Scenarios also present an opportunity to engage employees while maintaining their connection to the scenario process.
Think about the workforce as an extended sensor network for the uncertainties the organization seeks to track. Hundreds or thousands of people regularly read and share all kinds of information. What if they were on the lookout for specific signals of change and shared those into a collaboration space, creating community, and feeding the organization’s early warning system? Early warning is a primary reason that vehicles include so many sensors. Why not actively cultivate an organization’s talent to act as sensors for the indicators it seeks to leverage and avoid?
Why not actively cultivate an organization’s talent to act as sensors for the indicators it seeks to leverage and avoid?
For human resources, asking staff to act as sensors offers several benefits, including connecting professional development to ongoing activity, tying an abstract idea like scenario planning to concrete actions that manifest with real consequences, and developing cross-organizational relationships that break down silos and create a more holistic work experience.
With Scenarios HR Heralds the Right Tool for Chaotic Times
Too often education seeks to narrow, curtail, and focus (see David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know for more on this phenomenon). HR works with business leaders to create job descriptions that seek specific skills delivered by people with specific experiences and ways of thinking. This approach creates organizations bound to their assumptions, leaders holding current models too preciously, with too much esteem for past successes. Scenarios teach that dynamic events redefine existing logic. Holding on to the past in hope of stability no longer demonstrates loyalty and leadership, but intransigence. Leaders, managers and individual workers all need tools to help them navigate change. To keep these tools from people does them, and the organization, a disservice.
Even if the pace of change slows, it will not stop, we will not return to a previous context and reinstate old rules. We have reached a point where knowledge about how to navigate change will be as required as basic math or communication skills. HR organizations that bring these skills to their workforce will be better prepared for the next round of change and challenge. Even as organizations navigate toward relevancy coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges to democracy, the escalating environmental shifts, and the consequences of wealth inequity remain open questions. And that list doesn’t include myriad other social, economic and technological changes already underway.
Scenarios need to become a standard tool in professional development or HR risks building and reinforcing skills rooted in old realities. The adoption of scenario planning is as important to the discipline of human resources as it is to the talent HR is charged to develop, motivate and nurture.
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