Scenarios: mapping the possible

March 11, 2011

My post on resilience yesterday got extensively re-tweeted with a lot of favorable comments, so thanks for that. The presentation also went well and people seem to like the model as its fairly easy to understand and sets the context well. I am going to owe Max (Boisot) more than a meal for his original work on it. In a discussion following the presentation in the original Cognitive Edge headquarters I was asked about the transitionary zone between the Gaussian and Pareto universes. Now its always good to be asked a question, especially about a boundary and as the conversation developed it got interesting.

Now remember this is all about resilience and coping with uncertainty. One of the more conventional (although it used to be revolutionary) approaches to managing uncertainty is scenario planning. This ranges from primitive brainstorm to sophisticated techniques involving forces and factors analysis, use of Delphi method, narrative construction etc. etc. I realised as we talked that Scenario Planning is one of the techniques that operate in this transitionary zone, it works by managing the range of possible solutions against which we can then monitor emerging events.

On the left hand of the model, where we are dealing with probabilities we should be able to handle what uncertainty exists without having to expend the time and energy needed for scenario planning. As we move to the right uncertainty increases, but we can still be expected to understand the range of possible outcomes and that is where scenarios have their strength. Most techniques start by mapping the space, frequently onto a two by two matrix (why break the mould, after all you are only dealing with uncertainty.) Then scenarios are developed to cover the various extreames often expressed as narrative. Other forms show a diverging funnel of possibilities (although that seems to me better suited to the domain of the probable).

However the universe or possible futures is still constrained by the imagination not only of those who generate the scenarios but those who use them. The actual scenario is generally a full narrative with various chained models assuming causality in some form. All well and good for the border area. However as we move further to the right we start to move beyond the range of what we can imagine, and we cannot bound the space in to a distinct range of possibilities. The sheer number of possibilities belies imagination and we have to determine which are plausible. The more we can do that in real time the less the risk.

Now in the far right we are dealing with abductive or pre-hypothesis research. This uses large numbers to overcome cognitive and cultural bias. Instead of narrowing down the range of things considered (Delphi) we constantly seek to expand it, to hold things open as long as possible. We are working in a truly complex system which means that we face dangers of retrospective coherence and premature convergence; we need to hold open possibilities for as long as possible. This approach is something I started to call micro-scenarios a year or so ago. We need to be able to access many fragmented possibilities from as many sources as possible, we need to mix those with fragmented learning from the past so that we can manage clusters of possibilities in real time and test them for coherence/plausibility in the face of an emerging situation.

Now this starts to become interesting. That process of creating micro-scenarios which is a right hand technique, can also be a better generative technique for the input to a formal scenario planning process and can also allow more detailed level monitoring. At the same time the material is not confined to its aggregated and abstracted form (as in the case of a traditional scenario) but is also retained in its fragmented form with all the original diversity and richness. We can then share date between the domains of the possible and plausible, between inductive and abductive reasoning.

Being asked interesting questions by interesting people always triggers innovation. I can now see clearly, what I have previously only seen as through a glass darkly; namely how to use SenseMaker® to create a radical new service around this aspect of organisational strategy, and to make that a common research process with the recently developed Cynefin strategy process (currently being rolled out via the seminar series). It also links with work in preparation for the AoM this year to show an alternative to the Delphi method which holds open possibilities for longer.

Exciting times.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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