The future revisited

I’ve posted before about the role of horizon scanning in business planning, and why there is value in looking further ahead than just the next few years. You may recall I talked about how we rarely see that much real change over a relatively short time, even during great disruption; it’s usually long after they first appear that we find out what the real game-changing innovations are.

It’s time to go back to the subject of foresight, and how scenario planning could help your business face the future with confidence.

“The future’s not set: there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” – Terminator II

Scenario planning is one of the most useful types of forecasting. It uses our universal tendency as humans to tell stories, and is a response to a fundamental truth about prediction: there’s never just one way the future could develop.

You can see this clearly in military situations – “they’re on their way, general, but they could head either east by the coast or west through the hills. Here’s what we’ve planned in either case.” – but it’s also in wide use in business. The aim of the exercise is to produce not one but a suite of different predictions, and to then test your objectives against each one. Doing this well should help almost any business become more flexible and resilient. It lets you see how well you do in a very wide range of conditions.

So how do you decide what futures to examine? There’s any number of ways to define scenarios. The most common “matrix” technique looks at a pair of trends or questions about the future, then plots them against each other to define four different futures. It’s a good, fairly open-ended basis for looking at what might happen, but it’s not the only way.

Another technique works by identifying the future you want to see and a timeline that could get you there, then seeing what could divert you from it and where those paths lead. In 1992, 25 of South Africa’s political, business and civil leaders came together to discuss how to ease the transition away from apartheid. This ‘Mont Fleur’ scenario planning, named after the conference centre where discussions were held, planned 10 years ahead and allowed participants to ‘rehearse’ possible outcomes and plan accordingly, making for a smoother transition. It’s very useful if you have a clear vision of where you want to be.

Many organisations have used scenarios. The Law Society published a set of scenarios in 2012 looking at what the legal market might look like in 2025, which firms can use to think about how they might adapt to changing circumstances. We are presently using the same technique to look at how people might access justice under different conditions, and what might hinder them. This can help us understand how our regulatory policy can improve legal services for the people that use them, however the future pans out.

In all cases, the purpose of scenarios is much the same. In addition to directly seeing how your own objectives hold up in the different worlds you identify, there’s a clear benefit from using these stories about the future to place yourself there. Written to be memorable, relatable and involving, they make the journey into the future easy to access. You can find out more about scenario planning at www.scenariothinking.org. 

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