Scenarios: use and abuse

May 5, 2008

The interconnectivity of the modern world is at times a truly wonderful utility. Yesterday a tweet triggered me to reflect on Open Source; today Technorati links me to this blog on Scenario Planning, which in turn references this article by Conway both of which quote me. I now have another blog in the RSS feed!

Linda Popova, the blog author, correctly spots that while Conway quotes me on the irrationality of human decision making, he fails to see that I argue that reality exists (I remain amazed that you have to argue this with some post-modernists) and the tensions between perceptions and reality provide an important tool for thinking about the future. Linda concludes her blog by saying: I would not apply scenario planning to my national security issue as long as I’m doing a situation assessment. However, I do believe scenario planning as a technique could be a valuable addition to long-term strategic analysis, especially when used to challenge assumptions about rational choice whether on an individual or a collective level.

Now I have a lot of sympathy with that but not complete agreement, so I thought I would use the stimulus to blog some thoughts on scenario planning as a technique. I will do this in the form of a series of statements.

In any work which looks at the future, or seeks to plan for that we have three major elements

  • The nature of evidence and the method by which we capture or generate it not only for what has happened in the past, but also the different perspectives on that past, and possible developments that can take place in the future. This includes the key question of granularity of source material.
  • The method by which we carry out a situational assessment, how we describe the current state of affairs, and how do we generate different perspectives, including ones which are not our own.
  • The method by which we determine our next actions, the immediacy of those actions, the risk/confidence level that we apply and also the way in which we monitor for weak signals which would indicate that we need to reset those actions, or even reset the situational assessment.

I am leaving out a range of issues relating to operational deployment, instead I am concentrating on the strategic elements. My overall argument is that scenario planning as traditionally understood, has some utility, but also severe dangers. I also find a lot of the hype around it dubious. So far there seem to be two good case studies: one at Shell and the other in South Africa. Given the number of scenarios created and the money made in creating them I would have expected more. I am also dubious when people say “Ah but if it is done properly” or “You have not worked with me” or variations thereof. A technique, if it has utility should not be totally dependent on the process facilitator no matter what the ego needs of said facilitator, and some of the players in this space have significant egos!

Now this is a big post, so I plan to do it in three blogs over this week, one for each of the points above and possibly a fourth as conclusion. I will also be teaching the subject in part today at a Grande École so I may create a pod cast. I am then moving on to Greece for a meeting on a major academic project using SenseMaker which links to the first point. So overall strategy is going to be on my mind this week.

Any specific questions or comments leave a comment or send an email and I will attempt to deal with them as I post through the week. I’ve even created a new category!

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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.

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