Scenario planning

Scenario planning is a way of thinking about the future. It's not about predicting, but about imagining more effectively. The basic idea is this:

  • When we talk about "the future" we naturally imagine a linear extrapolation from the present.
  • This is a good way to be wrong. The world doesn't do linear. Change typically follows an exponential S-curve. Dramatic, unexpected breaks in continuity ("Black Swans") throw things off track.
  • We can't predict the future, but we can identify the driving forces of change that are present today. We can also identify what isn't changing. (See pace layers.)
  • By identifying what in the system is changing, and what isn't, you've identified a pivot point. You can start to think usefully about the space of plausable futures.

It's a simple process that produces surprising insights. My favorite thing about scenario planning is that I always come away thinking differently about the present.

The Process

  1. Question and time frame ("what will cancer research look like in 10 years?")
  2. Key factors influencing success or failure
  3. Driving forces of change ("DNA sequencing becoming cheaper, aging population...")
  4. Major stakeholders (e.g. "Siemans, Medicare, ...")
  5. Uncertainties
  6. Draft Scenarios
  7. Identify leading indicators and signposts
  8. New questions we would like to answer

As you make a list of major stakeholders, driving forces and uncertainties, you'll start to think differently about the problem space you're exploring.

Where the surprises happen is in the unexpected lateral connections that surface between forces. These "nodal points" are where change is likely to happen in rapid and non-linear ways. Mini narrative scenarios are a great way to capture these confluences.

Major stakeholders are important to identify, because incumbents will either resist or benefit from change. Disruption Theory points toward which response incumbents will have.

Signposts meaninful events to watch for that hint the world might be moving closer to one or the other of your future scenarios.

It's helpful to think about the story arc of your future.

  • Collapse: a kind of future in which life as we know it is falling apart.
  • Grow: a kind of future in which everything keeps climbing: population, production, consumption…
  • Discipline: a kind of future in where things are carefully managed by concerted coordination.
  • Transform: a kind of future in which a profound historical transition has occurred (spiritual, technological, ...).

A few more tips:

  • Start by looking at the present and the past.
  • Go 10 or more years out.
  • Include outside information and outside people.
  • The proccess is more important than the result. Just listing driving forces will change the way you think about a space.