How to Think About Voting For Uncertainties in a Scenario Planning Project

How to Think About Voting For Uncertainties in a Scenario Planning Project

Voting for uncertainties in a scenario planning project is counterintuitive and sometimes overwhelming. The list of items arrives for consideration from interviews and research in which the people voting didn’t likely participate. That means that people voting need to familiarize themselves with the items on the list.

Outside-In Thinking

More importantly, there is a key conceptual issue that needs to be kept in mind as people vote, namely, what scenario planners call the “outside-in.” The “outside-in” asks participants to consider uncertainties as a series of layers. The outside layer are broad, global considerations over which the participants have little or no influence. Many of these big uncertainties may not have any bearing on the focal question (such as “what is the nature of learning in 2030?”). But in order to create good, expansive scenario stories, the uncertainties that drive the scenario matrix need to be bigger than topic at hand.

In a well-run scenario planning project, all of the uncertainties on the list should already be vetted as to being uncertain. The voting isn’t about if something is uncertain or not, but how uncertain, and more critically, how important and uncertain (combined) any one item is relative to all other items under consideration within the framework of the focal question.

The next layer of uncertainties describes those related to the industry, and finally, the inner circle contains those things uncertain about the institution or its people. That inner circle should be left out of scenario planning at the onset because it is those decisions and control points in the middle for which the project is charged with creating context. In other words, if the organization or institution can make future decisions that will turn an uncertainty into a certainty, then it is something you want to explore during the process (because there is a range of decisions that could be made, and thus a range of outcomes) but not to use that uncertainty to drive the matrix and create the context. Industry uncertainties should be considered as critical when they are relatively independent of the larger class of uncertainties.

The way to think about voting then is to consider which items on the outer layer could influence those on the second layer. The outer layer items should then be considered more uncertain than the next level because their uncertainty is amplified by their influence on those in the inner circle.

An Example

Here’s an example. If the Decision-Making Approach of policymakers is uncertain (at the extremes it may be pragmatic and data-driven, or it may be ideologically-driven) may well influence another uncertainty, say, the Regulation of Public Learning Institutions. How political leaders make decisions will influence all manner of public policy so that uncertainty can create a great ramification than a more narrowly focused uncertainty.

People voting need to purposefully look for these layers of influence as they vote.

Considering Magnitude

The magnitude of uncertainty, as well as the relative impact of the uncertainties, is expressed by the weight of the vote, be it the number of stickers applied in a workshop, or the number of stars in an online survey. A typical voting scheme involves distributing ten votes across the field of uncertainties, with no more than five votes to be placed on any one item.

The Personal Perspective

Good scenario planning projects include a diverse group of participants. Each participant brings his or her own perspective to the voting process, and that is how it should be. Each person should consider the uncertainties not only against the focal question, for industry context, but use their personal and functional knowledge and experience to assert what they see as the uncertainties that are most important for them. In some voting schemes, importance and uncertainty are considered together, so the number of votes assigned to anyone item weights the vote in favor of that item. This permits individuals to influence the shape of the vote so that, in the case of students or hourly staff, their concerns, vs. those of “experts” and organizational leaders aren’t easily ignored.


Individuals involved in voting then need to consider the following:

  • The potential influence of uncertainties in one layer against uncertainties in the next layer (global vs. industry).
  • Which, if any of the uncertainties related to the industry are independent of more global influences.
  • Determine how the uncertainties stack-up against each other in order to assert which are the most important and most critical.
  • Use personal experience and functional expectations to represent your function’s perspective on which uncertainties are most likely to affect them.

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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