I was asked to reiterate my thoughts on scenarios and innovation recently, so here they are.
First, scenarios increase the productivity of brainstorming and idea discovery. Because scenarios force people into other social, economic, political and technological realities, 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, helps them see possibilities through new lens, thus recognize some they might ignore given the norms of their day-to-day environment.
Second, scenarios are helpful when you anthropomorphize them by directing questions toward them. 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 future of education) ‘What kind of cities would this future need?’ Again, the scenarios create a space, a canvas, for answering the question in ways that they would not be answered if people we 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.
Third, scenarios create a context that can help 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 challenge design choice. They also create a holistic background where complicated ideas, perhaps those, like government, higher education or health care, that include a multitude of processes and require several business models to perform simultaneously. The stories and logic of scenarios help people see big pictures, multiple interactions and feedback loops they might miss if their focal point is too close to an issue.
Fourth, scenarios can improve existing ideas by helping people imagine how they might play out by “wind tunneling” them. Take a particular automobile design that you know is just right. If you take its attributes 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 attribute, or even better, mistake before they are marketed (mistakes are ideas that don’t appear to have any appeal, regardless of the scenario).
Fifth, scenarios create stories that can help facilitate and inspire dialog in communities. In the form of thought leadership, scenarios can 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.
Finally, scenarios can help mitigate risk in innovations by creating a set of circumstances that test the robustness of a product, process or business model. By testing scenarios against an appropriate level of abstraction, organizations can focus 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. The 9/11 attacks, the gulf oil spill and other large catastrophes would have done well to practice futures at a 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 is a mismatch their audience.
As an aside, this is a primarily a commercial explanation, but it is no less applicable to public sector interactions such as process innovations, new models of constituency interactions, service innovations or agency interaction. It is even more applicable to larger level innovations such as trade and immigration policy, imaging the future of cities, counties, regions or states, military actions and shifting citizen expectations and capabilities (such as how to innovate government in the era of the Internet).