Scenario Planning: Slippery When Wet

In his blog post, Criticisms of scenario planning as undertaken by law departments, Rees Morrison Esq. has put forth  8 considerations regarding the effectiveness of scenario planning. Below you will find my comments taking each point in turn. 

  1. Little empirical evidence exists that compares the vaunted method to other methods of strategic planning.  We always read about Royal Dutch Shell, but not much else.

I agree that scenario planning has little empirical evidence- perhaps due to its future-oriented nature. However scenario planning remains the third most commonly used strategic planning tool after SWOT and Stakeholder analysis. It has demonstrated staying power over time while management philosophy sees many fads come and go. Scenario planning is a process tool for strategic thinking.

  1. Participants may not be able to think creatively, out of the box.  They are much more likely to extrapolate from the present but in a world full of unanticipated interactions, straight-line projections often go awry.

Each of us possess creative capabilities. The role of the scenario planner is to create a safe space for deliberation. Part of the challenge to the strategic team is to be able to “suspend disbelief”. Although the “devil’s advocate” is appreciated, the general council should be a good sport and allow the process to unfold rather that interjecting pragmaticism. There comes a time for the reality check in the process, but it is more appropriate after the scenarios have been developed.

  1. Interactions are not considered.  It is one thing to assume one change and carry out the implications; it is much more difficult yet realistic to introduce other things that would respond to that change and interact with it.

Systems thinking is a major part of scenario planning, and the process should start with a map of the complex interactions that are at play. We should be mindful that when we look into the future it changes the present, and that changes everything else.

  1. The scenario planners probably don’t go out far enough.  Major trends take a long time to unfold, yet most people don’t have visibility several years out.

Best practices suggest that scenarios should be built at a minimum of 10 years or 2 business cycles out in order to smooth out the tendencies of the present.  Major (mega)trends are used to stage and guide the process and to create a shared framework of the “known knowns”. Scenarios are then built upon the uncertainties that are relevant to the case and could have a large potential impact.

  1. To imagine the future is especially challenging for lawyers, many of whom are risk-averse, skeptical, competitive, and find it easy to attack someone else’s “far-fetched” idea.

These challenges are ever-present in scenario planning and are not limited to the lawyer. The far-fetched ideas, however, are the golden eggs of scenario planning. Offering the space to entertain such ideas encourages developmental and strategic thinking and is the core of scenario planning.

  1. Some planning exercises, on their face neutral and objective, are in fact ideological, political, power plays aimed to reach a predetermined end.

Absolutely. Scenario planning is used to break the dominant paradigm and help groups evolve their mental models to embrace other ways of thinking. Navigating power is a key challenge in scenario planning, and often there is some lag time before the predetermined end is destabilized. Scenario planning’s power comes from asking better questions and providing a framework to organize answers.

  1. The leaders of the group, and the members, may make no effort to put on the table what they take for granted or will not address elephants in the room.  Unstated or unchallenged assumptions warp the accuracy of scenarios.

This relates closely to number 6 above. One of the key components in scenario planning is to make explicit our assumptions about the future. Each of us has a vision for the future, and each one is different from the next. Furthermore, each scenario will have implications for the individual whose role will be different depending on which scenario comes to pass.

  1. Like all group efforts, success is more likely if a skilled facilitator guides the group and even more so if there is training for the group members.

Agreed. There are steps in the process that should begin before the workshop, and having participants use time on pre-reads, exercises and surveys will enhance the outcome of the scenario planning workshop. For more information you can visit the scenario planning playbook.


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