Lessons from scenario planning


May 31st, 2008

I’ve been doing scenario planning with some agricultural industry people in rural Victoria with my friend Stephen Kelly. Here’s some of what we’ve learnt.

Developing scenarios is designed to help you make better decisions today. Therefore the scenarios are not are substitute for a vision statement of a  preferred future. They describe plausible, possible  futures. The name ‘scenario planning’ is a misnomer –  indicating to many people, maybe even at a  subconscious level, that it’s another form of planning. Sure, planning may evolve out of the scenarios, but developing the scenarios themselves requires suspending that planning instinct.

The actual future will probably incorporate elements of all the scenarios developed. The process does not develop a preferred, or even, ‘correct’ scenario. It’s based on taking what we know for sure and combining that with what’s uncertain to develop possible futures. This requires some cognitive gymnastics by participants, especially if they are analytic and logical. Developing scenarios means taking some chances, taking some intuitive leaps and telling the story of the future. Thus language may get in the way. A scenario is usually a combination of known facts plus plausible alternatives. the plausible bit is important too. Scenarios developed from extreme, unlikely situations are rarely of much use.

What’s that? You’re wondering about the process of developing scenarios? Here’s one approach:

1) Gather known facts – data about demographics, geography etc

2) Look back 30 years and map the major events that happened in the world, country, industry during that time. Identify trends that this time-line reveals.

3. Use a 2 x 2 matrix based on important/unimportant and predicatible/uncertain to map these trends, and any other key drivers. Focus on the important/uncertain drivers as the core of your scenarios.

4. Affinity group these drivers and write newspaper headlines – based in the future – based on these.

5. Using Visual Explorer cards, take a headline and develop a story about the future using the picture cards. Tell the story that the around the cards and record this as the basis of your scenario.

6. Give each scenario a catchy name – usually relying on a metaphor to provide names for the various scenarios.

The time-frame for scenarios is 10 years. Shorter than this and the scenarios will be extrapolation of what’s already happening; much longer and people have difficulty imagining what the future might hold. Aim for 3 – 4 scenarios.

Watch out for:

  • People wanting to describe in detail how to achieve a certain future. This is planning, not scenario development
  • Too many scenarios that are a slight variation of each other – you’re looking for scenarios that are different enough that they are a useful tool for decision-makers
  • Avoid scenarios written like this – in dot points! Encourage rich, detailed story telling with characters and plots to help the scenarios come alive.

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