Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.
- William Shakespeare, Sonnet CVII
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Uncertainty: An Introduction
In March of 1603, King James I (James VI of Scotland) ascended the English throne. After many years of rule by Queen Elizabeth I, England faced many, as Shakespeare calls them in Sonnet CVII “incertainties.” The uncertainties started before Queen Elizabeth’s death. With no direct heir, she left her throne open to at least a dozen who would lay claim to it. There was no certainty that in 1603 her death bed hand-off to James could be respected. England could face another civil war. And even if it didn’t come to that, it had been many years since a “foreign prince” sat upon the throne of England. No one knew what to expect of a Scott James was the son of the vilified Mary Queen of Scots who contended Elizabeth’s throne until her death. And after many wars between Scotland and England over rightful rule, here was what appeared to be a peaceful transition of power bringing to the throne a person with a heritage primarily known through stereotype among the people of England.
This is not an essay though, about the uncertainties of Shakespeare’s time. Today’s headlines abound with uncertainty. As I typed an early draft of this paper, the Turkish military had just asserted rule to maintain “democracy,” while France realed from a terrorist attack in Nice, all the while the Europen Union and the world economies remain shaken by the United Kingdom’s vote to sever its EU ties. Since then several other political developments have shaken even the most stalwart believers in stability and prediction.
While we categorize many events or their outcomes as uncertain, organizations do little to systematically integrate uncertainty into their planning processes, and even less to include in their professional development curriculum. This failure leaves them strategically exposed. Without existing contingencies for uncertainty, organizations can neither quickly leverage the positive impacts of uncertainty, nor mitigate the risk associated with it.
Adopting scenario planning is the key to managing uncertainty. Organizations need to integrate scenario planning deeply into their work experience so that it not only provides strategic perspective and high-level investment, innovation and threat mitigation, but also drives individual actions related to innovation and the leveraging of change. Even those do practice the discipline rarely take it far enough to create an organization that is as humanly agile as it may think itself strategically.
It is within the human dimension that this essay focuses itself, although the lessons apply equally to strategic and structural uncertainty management. While many organizations seek to develop agility in their people, very few experiences actually result in people being able to learn agility through practice rather than abstraction. It is one thing to tell one’s to be agile, and a very different thing to be agile in the face of change that affect’s one personally.
At its core, the strategic discipline of scenario planning focuses on exploring several possible futures derived from the extrapolation of potential future values for relevant uncertainties related to a particular focal question. These focal questions frame the research and the resulting narratives. Example focus questions include, “what will work look like in 2025?,” “What will be the geopolitical landscape in 2030,” or “What will be the impact of immersive technologies in 20 years?”
Organizations typically converge on a focal question through its sponsors, but the identification of critical uncertainties is a much more holistic process. Executives, managers, staff members, partners, customers and researchers all contribute to the identification of uncertainties. The list of uncertainties acts a starting point for developing scenario narratives.
Teams typically select several uncertainties that are both the critically uncertain, and highly relevant to the focal question beings solved for. These uncertainties are then overlaid in a matrix. Several matrices compete, but ultimately the matrix that generates the most divergent and challenging stories becomes the basis for scenario development.
Scenarios are stories about the future. All of the identified uncertainties become characters in the narratives that interact and influence one another. Scenarios are not meant to be exhaustive explorations of all possible futures, but stretching platforms that force people to discard assumptions and face the possibility that the future they may have personally imagined is no more likely to happen than any of the other futures. Further, these futures, if they meet the goal of being purposefully divergent, stretch participants to imagine possible values for uncertainties, and combinations of uncertainties, that they would be unlikely to imagine given the constraints of their previous assumptions. Thus scenarios help prepare people, and organizations, not just for incremental change, but for radical disruption.
As soon as people start involving themselves in the narrative creation, either by actively participating in scenario development, or in the application of scenarios to their function or business unit, they are forced to acknowledge that even the best visions are contingent upon a certain set of social, technological, economic, environmental and political circumstances that when examined as a whole, are actually highly unlikely to occur in just the right way, and just the right time.
Therefore, in order to achieve a vision, organizations must navigate change, be willing to accept parts of the vision when it occurs, wait for other parts, perhaps even abandon parts of it that prove no longer relevant of achievable. At the point that they reach some predetermined date in the future set by their vision, the reality may be far from what was articulated in a strategic plan a decade ago. Societal values will be different. Technology will be different. Political, environmental and economic realities will very as well.
Against this backdrop I imbibed the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics from Dark Horse. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the rare entertainment properties that survived its creator’s learning curve. The original film starring Donald Sutherland and Kristy Swanson, represented an early version of Joss Whedon’s vision for a world filled with Vampires, demons and magic. The film did not do well. For a filmmaker, that is the depth of existential demise. But like Whedon’s vampires, the creative director and writer, was given the opportunity to resurrect his coming of age story on television. The television series went on for seven seasons, facing its own death threat at the end of season five.
While major uncertainties faced by major characters, and necessarily, Whedon’s fictional world focus this study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and scenario planning, there are organizational issues as well. The narrative includes the destruction and creation of organizations and alliances in response to uncertainties (or as the result of failing to face them).
As a fictional world, Buffy the Vampire Slayer offers metaphors for real-world uncertainties. As with television, where allegory and metaphor often allow for social commentary that might otherwise be suppressed by networks or sponsors, framing the general idea of uncertainty against Whedon’s fictional backdrop may make the idea of uncertainty less threatening, and therefore achieve the goal of helping people abandon assumptions and think with more agililty without initially tearing down their own world views.
But ultimately scenario planning is about tearing down world views and building a framework of multiple plausible futures as tools to challenge assumptions, to posit possibilities and to inspire innovation. And that is exactly the act that Joss Whedon and his team undertake, initially in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, but even more so in the comic book versions of what has come to be known as the Buffyverse.
A section a week will appear over the next several weeks. Please leave comments and ideas to help improve the arguments and they unfold. Feel free to point out typos too!