In an Uncertain World Scenario Planning Teaches Agility


Cover letter from my June 2014 Newsletter.

It’s been a a very busy couple of months. I have visited London, New York, Washington DC and Amsterdam, just to name a few of the stops. I have talked about the future of computing, the future of senior living and the future of management. These recent encounters with clients and conference goers reaffirmed my position that the success of leaders depends on their ability to think beyond execution, to anticipate change, to embrace uncertainty, and to incorporate agility into their own work, and into the work of the organization. I enjoy the shift in thinking that takes place every time I expose an organization to scenario planning. A light goes on–one that gives the attendees permission to imagine the unimaginable.

Too often, managers and leaders focus on how to control the near-term without taking the time to consider if what they, and the organization they work for, are doing today, will be useful, valuable or applicable to some future state.  As soon as the future comes up, people do one of two things: they dismiss it as something beyond them, or they engage it haphazardly, with great confidence in their own prognostications. Both are dangerous approaches when navigating the future.

Scenario planning offers a third, rational path that incorporates both fear and forecast. Scenarios begin by documenting all of the things you can’t possibly know that are critical to the organization and its business, or its sphere of influence in the case of NGOs and governments. By purposefully documenting uncertainty, scenarios help people confront what they can’t know. Although they may fear the future, at least the components of that fear have a name. And if scenario planning is taken to its conclusion, they also get to see the range of possible ways those uncertainties might play out, which can help them consciously navigate the future more effectively, even if they can’t predict or influence the actual outcome. When it comes to prognosticators, scenarios undermine the single, personal myth about the future and replaces it with a range of possible futures. The prediction moves from a certainty to a qualified statement that under the following circumstances, the future might look like this.

Scenarios offer organizations a wide range of strategic value, but perhaps the most important element of scenario planning comes in the recalibration of the minds of those associated with the project. No longer can a person exposed to scenario planning be complacent; the future is no longer an abstract, it has become fluid as assumptions fall a way to expose the raw core of history unfolding. Scenarios present stories of the future, and those who help develop the stories want to know, often passionately, how they turn out. And unlike other stories, their lives, their careers, their very futures, are bound into the scenario narratives.

As HR managers look for ways to engage their employees, to help them find passions that align with their work, they could do worse than giving their leaders and managers a robust framework for facing their fears, and a tool for co-creating and navigating the future. Many organizations provide employees incentives to innovate, but they often withhold the permission to actively engage in possibilities. Scenarios offer permission to explore, and with that permission comes innovation, engagement and agility.