Recently, I helped Rob Salkowitz, the instructor of the University of Washington’s Future of Marketing class work with his students to develop scenarios about the future of marketing. Although we employed an abbreviated process, we successfully engaged students and established a framework they will continue to develop over the course of the quarter.
Scenarios are important to any “futures” class because without them, speculation relies on the context of individual students, the instructor or some text that claims prescience. All of these share the fault of not recognizing the shared uncertainties related to the industry or technology in question, and worse, they fail to offer a process for exploring how those uncertainties will manifest themselves through alternative future pathways.
So if you ever take a futures seminar, a futures class or a workshop at a conference that professes to provide insight about the future, make sure that the instructor or speaker has not only conducted deep industry research, but that they reflect the personal humility to admit that they cannot foresee the future, and therefore, conduct scenario exercises to help create the context for their forecasts.
Beyond the arguments above, here are ten reasons every futures class needs to use scenarios:
- Any declarative statement about the future of something that is determined to be uncertain is, at best, a benign guess, but may also invoke risk by misinforming or misdirecting students susceptible to authority bias. Scenarios forcibly eliminate narrow or declarative statements about the future, even for things that are “known” because it becomes clear that driving forces exist within a context of uncertainty and therefore how they interact with the “unknown” forces can’t be forecasted accurately.
- Even the best researchers miss emergent ideas because they can’t possibly include all the variables in their models. Students exposed to scenarios may well recognize, invent or synthesize a concept, product or service that would be nearly impossible to imagine under a predetermined or declarative future context.
- Only by identifying uncertainties can student determine which environmental variables are best to monitor when attempting to anticipate change.
- The use of scenarios systematically introduces the need for mental agility.
- By developing future personas against a range of social, economic, technological and political situations students will quickly recognize that no “one size fits all” answer exists when it comes to consumers, citizens or future learners.
- Scenarios offer a way to facilitate debate without narrowing options too quickly.
- Scenarios ultimately require choice, which teaches students that no matter how fluid the future, or how flexible a tool, one cannot simply speculate and hope, one must make choices among a range of choices — and that is hard, but it is easier when the reasoning is robust and the approach well understood.
- Resiliency requires a recognition that choices may not always be right, and that contingencies are better at least imagined prior to change or crisis than after. Scenarios help prepare minds for change, and help keep choices from being ideologically based.
- Learning a robust process for how to think about the future is more lasting than the ephemeral predictions about how a particular technology or fad will play out in the future. Scenarios are the intellectual equivalent of teaching someone to fish in order to keep them nourished for a lifetime.
- Scenarios ask everyone to reveal their assumptions about the future, and then, to abandon those assumptions, at least while conducting the mental exercise. This act helps people not only recognize the inherent messiness of the future, it helps those seeking to understand the possibilities ask questions that better reveal their organization’s true needs, rather than the ones that are easy or politically correct.