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Why we need scenarios to be ready for the future

No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be…This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking 

–Isaac Asimov, Asimov on Science Fiction 1981

Organizations have to consider outside forces and trends as they build their strategies. But in most, too few people spend time thinking about how the future will shape the organization. Not enough of the knowledge and ideas of the organization finds its place in strategy. Leading firms use scenarios to solve these problems.

A science fictional way of thinking

Scenarios answer Asimov’s call for a “science fictional way of thinking”. They ask, “What if?” They are stories we build about future possibilities. The stories let us test and explore future risks and opportunities. 

The scenario building process draws out the insight of a team and helps make future challenges and opportunities clearer and more compelling. It gives participants a shared view of future possibilities. That view enriches their day-to-day work and strategic thinking.

We can use scenarios to think through potential decisions about strategy. The scenarios also become a tool for sharing strategic thinking with others. 

Most organizations have a good idea what they intend to do in the next few years. But that view can weaken their sense of more transformational change and bigger opportunities further out. Taking a look ten or even more years out lets us imagine bigger change. Then we can step back to today to understand what to do about it. 

The further into the future we look, the less certain we are about what will happen. But also, the further out we look the more our decisions today have the power to shape change and opportunity. 

This diagram shows how using scenarios can help us avoid just pursuing an “official” future. Official futures usually assume continuity. They tend to ignore both new threats and opportunities. Good foresight, exploring alternate scenarios, builds and maintains a broader view of what’s possible. 

Cone of uncertainty

Scenario building is a shared, immersive activity

The power of scenario building is in how it gets people to immerse themselves in the future. Working on scenarios leaves them no choice but to think both broadly and concretely about the future.

Once people have had the scenario-building experience, they have new ideas and places to go in their heads. They’ve got a much richer view of the future. They have a new mental habit–to think about alternative futures, not accepting that there’s some inevitable future out there. They should, and usually do, have a sense of empowerment. They discover there are parts of their future they can shape, starting now.

By the way, part of my practice is helping teams use scenarios. So, to be clear, I not only want you to do this, I’d love to help. We build scenario programs for all sorts of organizations. Here’s a page describing our support for workforce futures explorations.

Let me know if I can help you: jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-271-0444.

Some of my other posts on scenarios:

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