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Come over to the dark side

We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.
–John W. Gardner 1912-2002, author, business, leader, designer of Medicare

I favor negative scenarios-at least sometimes. Individuals should contemplate, once in a while, what they would do if they lost their job, their house, or their spouse. Why? Because reckoning with who we would be, what we would have left, and how we would get on with things builds a more robust view of the future and our part in it. Organizations should play out the same kind of thinking-ultimately to get to positive and empowered views of their futures.

Of course, positive scenarios are also good and powerful. Peter Schwartz, in The Art of the Long View, asserts that clear, evocative scenarios about a post-apartheid South Africa-positive stories-carried around the country and presented to groups, especially to white South Africans, helped end apartheid. He asserts that they enabled people to imagine a new South Africa, without apartheid, that was good for blacks and whites. Those positive scenarios met people’s fears head-on, and showed them how their future could be positive.

There’s also great power, and perhaps even greater insight in negative scenarios. Views of harsh change in your sector, for example, make things look dire. An organization can see change-steady or discontinuous change-that truly threatens them. And at first a dark scenario can make things look hopeless. But a negative scenario gives you the chance to imagine a positive future against that picture of troubling change.

Nothing is more powerful than that. It’s much easier-it comes naturally-to see a successful future when conditions are in your favor. Thinking your way to a positive outlook when the picture looks bleak means you can find success in adversity. You will be stronger for it.

In truth, in our consulting practice we nearly always have groups work on both positive and negative scenarios. A collection of scenarios, positive, negative, and uncertain, gives a group the most chance to chart a course with understanding of the range of potential outcomes. As Norman Vincent Peale said in 7 million plus copies of his book, there’s power in positive thinking. But there is plenty of power in negative thinking too.

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