Developing a Culture of Foresight by Creating Scenarios (3 of 8 Ways)

The nerdy definition of a scenario is a hypothetical sequences of events leading up to a specific future outcome.  I like to think of them as storyboards for the future.  They can be complex or simple, short or long.  They can be presented in written, verbal, or video form or even as a skit.

Scenarios have many purposes.  They can be used to think through the future of an entire industry, an organization or a single function.  Common to all of them are the identification of driving forces (such as demographics), stakeholders (such as hospitals), and trends (such as shorter lengths of stay).

Don’t neglect to make the effort fun, simple, and participatory.  It’s not only about the end result.  It’s also about the process.  The power of scenario building is how it gets people to immerse themselves in the future.  Working on scenarios leaves them no choice but to think broadly about the future.  Every group I’ve done this with has exceeded my expectations and probably their own as well.  They come up with marvelous, provocative ideas and important insights for their organizations.

It’s clear that once people have had the scenario-building experience, they have new places to go to in their minds.  They have a richer, more robust view of the future.  They also have a new mental habit – to think about alternative futures, not accepting that there’s some inevitable future out there.

Good scenarios are the result of your mind meeting in the middle.  You left-brainers can add some specific financial forecasts based on your spreadsheets.  Those tending to be right-brain wired may want to include some creative responses to social trends.  I once had a right-brainer taunt a left-brainer with the proclamation that “It’s better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.”

In 2008, while a Board member of the Clark County Family YMCA, I enjoyed working with colleagues to help the Y’s leadership open themselves up to alternative futures via scenario development.  The scenarios were delivered by pretending to be television newscasters.  Different scenarios were reported on as news.  Everyone had a blast.  Another group of folks created a fictitious YMCA 2018 Annual Report.  It addressed political, economic, social and technological issues.  It was coherent, compelling and, by design, dystopian – a very dark future for the organization.  Needless to say, it caused quite a stir.  In other words, it worked.

If you think scenario planning is fluff, a luxury or pointless navel gazing, you would do well to know that the main reason Shell Oil Company survived the great oil crisis of 1973 was because of, you guessed it, scenario planning.  Regardless of what you think of Big Oil their corporate planning folks don’t do fluff.  So get your team together and craft some scenarios.  They can greatly contribute to you organization’s long-term success.  And there’s nothing fluffy about that.


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