Scenarios and Innovation: How Do the Differing Contexts of Multiple Scenarios Help Drive Innovation?
When discussing scenarios and innovation, I am often asked how scenario planning helps drive innovation. Here are six key points to consider:
- Scenarios increase the productivity of brainstorming and idea discovery. Because scenarios force people into other social, economic, political and technological possibilities, the constraints of the present and the noose of their assumptions loosen. They allow themselves to play more freely in these open but bounded spaces. The logics within the scenario help people see possibilities through a new lens, thus recognizing some they might ignore given the norms of their day-to-day environment.
- Scenarios drive innovation when organizations anthropomorphize them by directing questions toward the narratives. If I facilitate a session on the future of cities, I might ask (in the context of a set of scenarios on the future of work or the future of education), ‘What kind of cities would this future need?’ The scenarios create a space, a canvas, for answering the question in ways that they would not be answered if people were left to their own linear paths through personal imagination. Scenarios create a safe, shared space to unleash creativity that would never happen in the confines of official futures or unarticulated, unshared futures.
- Scenarios create a context to inform product, process and business model innovation. Because they exist outside of a particular domain, they can, unlike other models, be applied broadly. CAD tools can’t build models of processes. Process modelers don’t simulate a business model. Scenarios, however, can help people imagine how any of these would exist in a different set of circumstances, perhaps challenging underlying assumptions that would suggest different design choices. They also create a holistic background where complicated ideas that include many processes and require several business models to perform simultaneously can be examined together. The stories and logic within scenarios help people see patterns, connections, multiple interactions and feedback loops they might miss if their focal point is too close to an issue.
- Scenarios improve existing ideas as people imagine how they might play out by “wind tunneling” them. Take a particular automobile design that many consider just right. Take the attributes of that design through a set of scenarios. It is likely that some of those attributes will be more appealing under one set of circumstances than another. Scenarios can help highlight weaknesses, reinforce strengths, and, as mentioned above, discover missing attributes or, even better, mistakes before they are marketed (in the scenario context, mistakes are ideas that don’t appear to have any appeal, regardless of the scenario).
- Scenarios create stories that help facilitate and inspire dialog in communities. In the form of thought leadership, scenarios become viral forces for helping customers, clients, or constituencies imagine different futures. This helps customers think about contributing input that they might not have contributed if they were only presented with current products, processes or business model.
- Scenarios can help mitigate risk in innovations by creating a set of circumstances that test the robustness of a product, process or business model idea. By testing ideas against an appropriate level of abstraction, organizations can focus on internal and external knowledge about possible forces acting on an idea, and thus imagine possible ramifications before they happen, and then start understanding the implications of those events. Many caught flatfooted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 9/11 attacks, the Gulf oil spill, and other large catastrophes would have done well to practice futures at an operational level. We are regularly reminded that the team at Twitter never modeled their success or that Facebook didn’t have a practice scenario for a future in which their vision of privacy was a mismatch with their audience. The practice of building scenarios exists and should be used more effectively. Boards should encourage their executives to build scenarios as a central tool for risk management and innovation.
Scenarios and Innovation: A Note on the Public Sector
These observations primarily reflect commercial situations but also should also be considered for public sector investments such as process innovations, new models of constituency interactions, service innovations or agency interactions. Scenarios can drive public sector innovations such as trade and immigration policy, imagining the future of cities, counties, regions or states, military actions and shifting citizen expectations and capabilities, such as how to shape government innovation for digital transformation.
Scenarios can also help inform policy positions and the marketing of policy by helping constituents imagine the future that the policy is designed to help realize. Scenarios offer policymakers a bigger canvas than any one issue can create and, therefore, a better place to articulate their visions for the future.
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