The unspoken scenario

by John Mahaffie on April 24, 2014

WTC lights sister72 flickrConsider for a moment what would happen if you lost everything you own and all your money. That awful scenario is, of course, possible in any of our lives. And no one wants to dwell on such a thought. It would be hideous.

But try out the scenario. What would you do that first morning? You and your family? What would you do first? What resources, deep down, would you still have to try to restart your life?

You would not have lost everything. You would have your knowledge, your skills, your intelligence, and you would have the love and regard of your friends and family. You would have your ambition and your drive to find a way to live. You would have positive thoughts amidst the negative, or you would have try to. You could find those positive thoughts and put them to work to build something new for yourself. This is what I see time and again when a natural disaster hits people, taking everything they own. 

This story of disaster is your unspoken scenario. And in working with clients, I can often detect that they have an unspoken scenario, and sometimes they can too.

It is, of course, far from their minds that they'd like to spend time exploring the unspoken scenario. They assume that if the disaster happens, nothing will be the same anyway. So why dwell  on it? Though they of course resist shining a light on the possibility, organizations can and do fail, and disappear forever. Or they get his with a massive shock that is a thoroughgoing disaster.

In the 9-11 attacks, the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald lost over two-thirds of its workforce in the World Trade Center collapse. But the firm still exists, and it's perhaps stronger than ever. Cantor Fitzgerald faced a sort of unspoken scenario. The firm likely would never have sat down to explore the "what if" of such a disaster. But what if they had? They could have exercised their thinking on how the organization would reroute its massive load of brokerage transactions, using its other offices and infrastructure to reroute the load. They could have thought about and gotten stronger in building the resilience and durability of their mission and culture. CEO Howard Lutnick chanced to be out of the office on 9-11 and survived the attacks. The strength of his vision and determination was a difference maker in their recovery. Perhaps Cantor Fitzgerald had this sort of resilience anyway. The firm brought its trading back on line within a week of the attacks.

What is the unspoken scenario in your organization? It could be a lot of things. Is there an existential threat out there that no one want's to talk about? or at least, that they are reluctant to get into in detail? Often there is. It may be a scenario of doom or a big change that changes everything. But should you explore it? You should.

The unspoken scenario may be an easily-thought-of elephant in the room, or it may be an idea so "out there" that no one is talking about it, but they should. There is power even in an extreme bad news scenario. Why? Because you can look at potential futures where all bets are off, where everything changes, and sometimes, you can see a pathway forward. And the organizations that practice that thinking have a better chance of success.

What you can do. Get a small group of thoughtful colleagues together, and brainstorm your unspoken scenarios. Reflect on them and why they are 1). threats to your existence, and 2). not being discussed. Consider if there would be value in convening a larger conversation, or playing them out in more thorough story building and analysis. You may need and want to do these things quietly–even very quietly, to not alarm people, but involve your strategic leaders in frank discussion of true threats, and, quite likely you will discover more about your strengths and how you can find opportunities in what look like insurmountable challenges.

Image: sister72 via Flickr, Creative Commons attribution license.


handcrankAre you in a place where you want to kick-start foresight, but you are not sure how to start? You can start simple and you can succeed. But you probably can’t just leap in with a big splash, even if you’re the chief. You need to lay some groundwork.

Below are seven ways to get started that will help you:

  • Test the waters for foresight in the organization
  • Get the organization used to the idea of exploring the future
  • Learn how to explore your future effectively, and learn what works best in your situation
  • Build a name for yourself in your organization for foresight

What you can do:

  1. Have an actual conversation about your organization’s future, an open, thoughtful, creative one, with colleagues. Then talk about how it went, what it meant to everyone, and how you can have more—far more such conversations. This is a show-them-what-it-would-be-like moment, and may be essential to building your case for more foresight. You could establish a pattern of having lunch discussions on critical futures topics, such as “first Friday” of the month. If you can get interesting future-focused guests to share insights, so much the better
  2. Find kindred spirits in your organization that will join you in exploring the future, and encourage you, remind you, challenge you in doing so. You might do this by sharing an article or blog post on the future, and seeing who seems interested. Or schedule a brown bag lunch discussion, e.g. as described in no. 1 here. Keep in touch with these folks, involve them, seek their counsel. Build a foresight community.
  3. Do environmental scanning–Start learning about the wider world of forces, trends, issues, challenges, and opportunities that you face. That means carving out some time to do what is called environmental scanning–exploring for new trends, ideas, issues across all sorts of media. Join listserv and other online discussions on the future, and become a channel of new insights from those into your organization. It won’t seem like you are doing your work at first, maybe, but as soon as you discover fresh insights and see how they fit, you’ll feel justified in the time spent. You probably do these things anyway. Bring a focus to it, and pay out results.
  4. Pay it forwardPay it forward means sharing your new insights on change as widely as you can, as noted. Pick up the role of scout for things important to your organization. Share discoveries, and build yourself a reputation for valued insights.
  5. Find outside encouragement, e.g. joining with others in professional associations who explore the future and strategy. Examples include the Association for Professional Futurists, the World Future Society, the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals. Some of those organizations have local chapters and each has a vigorous online presence. They are not expensive to join.
  6. Get visible about it–Commandeer a wall, whiteboard, or similar, and put some questions up: “What are the top trends shaping our future?” “What are we not talking about that we should?” Get a conversation going, share and nurture the comments.
  7. Play the role of futurist–Make a habit of saying, in every reasonable place at a meeting or in a discussion, “can we take a moment and look at how this plays out, longer term?” Playing this gentle but persistent futurist role will keep the future a part of the conversation. Be the futurist in the room.

Good luck!



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