Using Scenarios to Build Better Teams

Using Scenarios to Build Better Teams

Scenario planning is designed to help organizations think strategically through the uncertainties they face. In a strategic context, scenarios are usually developed and used by senior executive teams and boards of directors. They can also be powerful tools at lower levels in the organization to help people think more strategically about the industry they work in, the workplace of tomorrow and future customer expectations — all in the context of solving for a particular problem against the scenario set.  This approach to using scenarios offers an excellent foothold for team building.

Too often, team building focuses on practicing skills in the context of a scripted, sometimes stilted set of narratives. People play act through the exercises, but they rarely become emotionally involved. Using scenarios to, for instance, think about the future of the customer in a situation that is  antithetical to some of the people on the team, brings real emotional, procedural and managerial issues to the surface. Scenarios on one hand ask people to suspend belief, and on the other, challenges their most preciously held beliefs.

As teams work through the solution, team facilitation experts can acts as guides, suggesting techniques for dealing with conflict resolution, consensus building, idea marketing and other team-oriented skills that will prove valuable in other instances.

The scenario exercise acts as the focal point for these team skills. They present a set of situations and contexts that force people out of their comfort zone. They don’t get to call in a right answer, because there is no right answer. An adequate answer must be converged upon by the team.

There are several exercises within scenario planning that lend themselves to team building, these include:

  • Developing personas for people who “populate” the futures.
  • Writing stories about the future using uncertainties as “characters” in the story.
  • Discussing and documenting the implications for scenarios for an industry or business.
  • Developing strategies or action plans that are driven by the scenarios.
  • Developing new scenario sets (this is a major undertaking where team building can be incorporated, but it isn’t.

The benefit of using scenarios over basic team building exercises (like Two Lies and a Truth or The Classification Game) include the following:

  • A deep, emotionally leaden context that the “players” can relate to.
  • A challenge to personal beliefs that the individual and the team must work through.
  • A clear, meaningful problem that doesn’t have a right answer, forcing the team to pay attention to how they work toward an answer, not in trying to outsmart the exercise.
  • For most, scenarios offer a novel approach to team building that no one in the room will be able to say “I’ve done this a dozen times and I’m not interested,” or “most the time people pick the green one. Just pick the green one and let’s go back to work.”
  • In the most sophisticated situations, management can provide a set of strategic decisions that have no one good answer, and the team building outcomes can become part of a larger insight building exercise — which managers could then be engaged in at the next level, reinforcing the value of their earlier work and giving them additional opportunities to exercise their team skills as they take their work forward.
  • If the scenarios are “official” they can also be used as a way to expose managers to the strategic issues and uncertainties facing the organization in a more visceral way, and using that exposure to start building strategic agility within the ranks of management.

Scenarios are intended to help organizations actively engage with uncertainty, and by doing so, become more agile and nimble in the face of certain change. By using this technique to help managers build better teams, not only do individuals obtain new perspectives, but they share those perspectives with other senior leaders—and in a time of evolutionary change, or even existential crisis, that experience will help those leaders address the challenge more strategically and cohesively. The shared experience of becoming a team using a set of scenarios will create a common approach to problem perception and a consensus context that can be drawn upon in many business situations.

The image is from the Microsoft Information Worker Board of the Future, which I ran at Microsoft in 2003.

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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