It’s been almost 20 years since a couple of scholars at the U.S. Army War College came up with the VUCA acronym. This describes a world that’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. However apt a characterization of 2020 VUCA is, I like to go farther back in time when I think about scenario planning.

And take it from a Frenchman: 20th-century French intellectuals had a real thing about the future. Mathematician Henri Poincaré, for example, wrote in 1913: “It is far better to foresee even without certainty, than not to foresee at all.”

Chances are, you yourself, someone on your team or in your organization right now is pretty busy following Monsieur Poincaré’s recommendation. Clearly, there is still not much certainty around. As a friend who works for one of the “Big Four” accounting firms mentioned the other day, “That’s why they call what’s next the ‘evolving normal’.”

How might you and your business get your scenario planning right? Here are five suggestions, born from practical experience over the past 25 years.

  1. Model an even number of scenarios: That’s because an odd number will, subconsciously or not, make people choose the middle one. So, to paraphrase George Orwell in Animal Farm, “Two and three scenarios bad, four scenarios good.”
  1. Give your scenario a name: A client with whom I recently did some work landed on some good ones. Here are a few:

That these names happen to be pop song titles is less important than the fact that they ensure memorability and engagement with the decision makers in the organization.

  1. Make it visual: Visualization is essential at all stages of scenario planning. In her 2015 book, Patricia Lustig described the use of “future wheels” in the early part of the process. This visual tool helps to chart the connections and feedback loops that link the drivers of a scenario. Later in the process, the use of multimedia — video in particular — is also important to disseminate the futures that have been determined. I recall a series of 20-minute videos commissioned by British Telecom (BT) in the mid-2000s. Like an early season of Black Mirror (plot-twisters and villains included), these shorts aimed to describe a mobile-first world, a couple of years after BT had sold off its mobile arm, making the case for a re-entry in the mobile market.
  1. Working out loud: As Steve Tighe writes in a recent issue of Strategy Magazine, “Scenario building is a participation sport.” For this to work, you need a team that can operate transparently and with agility.
  1. Scenario planning is about freedom: That’s a point Peter Schwartz made forcefully in The Art of the Long View. For me, this has two applications. First, scenario planners must remain open to changing assumptions. No two situations are the same. Second, planners need to retain a degree of independence from the accepted wisdom that inevitably exists in their organization. That’s the only way to think the unthinkable and prepare for it.

Putting these five tips into action will, in my experience, enable the organization to take action. In other words, you’ll move from “what’s next?” to “so what?” and “now what?” Even then, it’s worth remembering what another French thinker, Paul Valéry, declared in 1937: “The future is no longer quite what it used to be.”

 

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