From Research to Scenarios
— Andrew Curry
Scenarios are the “sentences” in a strategic conversation. They operate in a special creative space, in between the realm of facts and the realm of fiction. The unique perspective of this privileged conversational space enables us to discuss previously unforeseen threats and opportunities.
In narrative terms, a scenario is the raw material for a story, not the story itself. It is the distillation of events, trends, drivers and possibilities that make up a possible future. It deliberately lacks the persuasive elements of a true story: characters, stakes, crises. A scenario is a dispassionate perspective on the future.
Many organizations are familiar with basic scenario planning, but scenarios are often seen as an end-product. Narrative Futures treats them as an intermediate stage in a longer conversation whose final output is either a plan or a test.
Strategic Plans, Designs, and Aspirational Scenarios
What’s your ideal future? Organizations often start with where they are now, and try to work out incremental changes that can lead them in a better direction. Aspirational scenarios start by imagining your ideal future, then work backward to generate the outline of a plan to get there. For instance:
- What does your ideal future look like?
- What would the next-to-last step before achieving that future be?
- What would the step before that have to be? Etc.
On their own, aspirational scenarios can serve as inspirations for the whole organization. They encapsulate your values, aims, hopes and some tactical wisdom in a kind of mnemonic form. In this sense, thinking through your aspirations allows you to rehearse your future.
Turn-Signals and Canaries in the Coal Mine
Scenarios are often discarded after they’ve been used to define an immediate set of strategic actions. It’s true that you should refresh your scenarios regularly. If you discard the roads not taken, however, you’ll also be throwing out valuable indicators that a different future than the expected one might be coming true.
Narrative Futures consults with our clients to develop indicators for each scenario:
- Canaries are events or trends (usually in the outside world) that suggest that a particular scenario might be coming true. Regularly checking in on the canaries (on a quarterly basis, say) lets you “sanity-check” your original assessment — especially for those scenarios that you decided were unlikely!
- Turn-Signals are indicators that a scenario is not going to develop as expected. It’s important to have some metric for assessing whether the future you expect is the future that’s evolving. If it’s not the case, you may need to move quickly to adapt.
For the 2020 Media Futures project, I did workshop facilitation, scenario design, and authored the short scenario vignette Wedia. 2020 Media Futures explores the near future of communications and entertainment media, and used four scenarios to sharpen the contrasts between alternative possibilities out to the target date.