What are the ‘scenarios’ in scenario planning?

What are the ‘scenarios’ in scenario planning?

What are the scenarios in scenario planning?

Scenarios offer narratives about the future. Imagining the future counts as a uniquely human trait. Much of the time, however, we think about the future in the same way we live our lives, extrapolating one event after the other.

An overview of a scenarios

Scenario narratives are myths about the future that help people emotionally and intellectually imagine alternative futures.

A scenario set brings together multiple narratives about the future of a single domain (such as the future of work or the future of education) Scenarios should capture the state of the key uncertainties.

A scenario offers a narrative about a single alternative future.

Scenario narratives can be delivered as videos, multimedia presentations or physical experiences.

Emerging technologies, social movements, environmental realizations, political legislation and economic market pressures shape the future in ways that often challenge linear thinking, but because people don’t have the tools for exploring the future more deeply, they often wait to adapt to change until it impacts them personally, which may be too late for a business or an individual to leverage the opportunities in the change, or avoid its negative impacts.

Scenario narratives don’t fit every person’s approach to planning. Some people simply want to explore. They don’t care about the outcome, just the journey. Some people care so much about the outcome that they constantly cycle through predictions, always looking for the next piece of data to solidify the case. They get paralyzed by their own analysis (this is known as analysis paralysis).

Scenarios force these extremes to common ground. Scenarios curtail analysis by creating a set of plausible futures that both expand and limit the analysis. Since a person or organization’s pre-conceived notion of the future seldom exists in its entirety in the scenarios, those who want to over analyze find themselves on unsure ground, because the assumptions they built into their extrapolation analysis crumble in many of the futures.

Scenario: An Overloaded Term

Many other processes and disciplines also use constructs called “scenarios.” Serious Insights suggests that “scenarios” resulting from the scenario planning process be thought of as “scenarios” with a “Big S.” This implies the scenarios offer strategic value. Scenarios, such as those used in application development, should be referred to as scenarios with a small “s” as they offer tactical guidance. Regardless of the terms, those who employ more than one type of scenario, need to find ways to separate the concepts to avoid confusion.

For those who seek to wander, the scenarios certainly create an ample imaginative playground, but the process requires action. The point of scenario planning is to make decisions under uncertainty, not to simply define alternatives. Wanders need to return to a strategic problem that needs to be solved and use the scenarios as input to a solution. Ideally, scenario-driven strategic dialog offers new alternative and contingencies that organizations might miss in a strictly linear extrapolation analysis. Scenarios often lead to better-informed decisions, and at best, to better decisions.

Scenario narratives and multiple futures

Scenario narratives offer multiple plausible futures that help individuals and organizations explore a range of futures, each with its own set of internal logic. Scenario planners write deep stories about the future that force leaders to confront their own assumptions and to start thinking about the alternative path for navigating the future. In some futures, seemingly ridiculous contingencies often offer a viable solution, and in others, ideas held with firm conviction falter under the changing circumstances outlined in the narrative.

Scenarios receive a name that describes their core characteristic, a first-person or third-person narrative that includes the state of the principal uncertainties associated with the domain area.

Beyond the narratives, scenarios usually end up as a set of presentation slides that offer high-level overviews that include their name, a single paragraph description, a table of uncertainty values for that future and a list of current events that can be thought of as “evidence” that the narrative remains plausible as the future unfolds.

The narrative power of stories ultimately provides the scenarios with their power. These myths about the future bring evocative language, characters, and situations that help people imagine the future, and connect with the underlying logic of that future. Scenarios deliver an alternative structure of facts and relationships, a divergent self-contained truth.

All scenarios will happen, and none of them happen. The actual future will be some amalgam of characteristics first viewed through the scenarios. The scenarios instill their narratives is a way that people can use them as a lens for watching the future unfold—rather than pre-constructing a future based on a single set of assumptions and extrapolations, scenarios offer a probability cloud. It is harder for those who imagine many possibilities to find themselves surprised—and it proves easier for them to adapt to the future that is when they abandon any future they think should be.


Scenarios do not predict the future but act as doors into the future. As the future unfolds those doors exist increasingly in the past. Scenario narratives only deliver value as long as they remain far enough ahead of circumstances to suggest alternative perspectives. Eventually, the narratives will require new engagement and new grabbling with the emergent uncertainties that will influence the next ten or twenty years.

Scenarios as Complement to Strategic Planning

Scenarios are part of a strategic planning toolkit. They are not intended to compete with other techniques, but to complement them. For organizations that conduct strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threat analysis (SWOT), scenarios offer a way to test assumptions in the SWOT more vigorously. A strength in one future may prove a liability in another, and some opportunities may only arise under a particular set of circumstances.

Key Serious Insights research on scenario planning

How to write a good scenario planning focal question

Scenario Planning: Getting to the Matrix

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.