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Using scenarios to reimagine our strategic decisions

We recently caught up with Matt Finch, a strategic foresight practitioner. Matt helps organisations and communities look at their future and make better decisions - particularly in times of uncertainty, when it’s challenging to model and predict what’s coming next.

He attended our recent workshop ‘Scenarios and the Future of Work’ delivered in partnership with the Danish Design Centre. Here we reflect on some of the issues raised by the workshop, and the use of scenarios as a strategic tool in decision making.

What do you mean by ‘scenarios’ as an approach to strategy?

Scenarios are imagined future contexts used to inform strategic decisions. The act of imagining multiple plausible futures, and thinking them through in a disciplined way, gives us a fresh perspective on the decisions we need to make today. It’s not about predicting the future: scenarios don’t have to come to pass in order to be useful. Instead, they help you to unlearn your assumptions and identify opportunities or threats you were previously blind to.

How can scenarios help us to better understand the impact of automation and AI on jobs? For example, AI is increasingly being used to monitor work, productivity levels, and dictating management decisions. This is having devastating effects on people’s well being.

This fear - often justified - of monitoring, measurement, and control has been with us since the days of the Taylor method; the time and motion studies used to make workplace processes more efficient. The difference is that today’s technology is allowing us to do this much more quickly and thoroughly.

Scenarios allow us to explore how these relationships are transforming our working lives: what happens when this attitude permeates into our home lives? Where might new boundaries between the public and private lie? What does this do to our sense of identity and the choices available to us? What are the implications of shifting power balances between employers and employees?

During the workshop, people seemed to already have preconceived ideas about which scenarios were ‘better’. They would default to ideas that they were already comfortable or familiar with. How do you encourage people to stretch their thinking, in order to step outside their comfort zones to reveal blind spots?

The ideas that come out in these scenario discussions are often a reflection of people’s own worldviews. You want a range of backgrounds, values, and experiences in the group; people who can challenge and stretch each other’s thinking. Diversity yields panoramic, stereoscopic vision. Ideally scenarios should be as rich, dynamic, and internally complex as the world we presently inhabit.

I joined a group in the Experimentation by Design event who were exploring a world full of small “tribes” driven by social values. They felt pretty good about this future, and saw the opposite, market-driven futures as rather dystopian. But whose social values are we talking about here? Our group was assuming that the dominant social values would be the ones we liked. What if all of those future “tribes” had conflicting social values? They may have clashing notions of justice, ethnicity, social roles, gender, and sexuality, for example.

How reliant are these imagined futures on our knowledge of the past?

The great scenario planner Pierre Wack said that scenario planning is like seeing rain on the mountain and knowing it could mean a flood in the river below in three days' time. The future doesn’t really come at you from over the horizon; it overtakes you in the rear-view mirror. The signals of emergent change are already there, if you know where to look.

We are drawn to predictive modelling because numbers give us a sense of certainty, but such prediction is really just a bet on the future based on data from the past. When future conditions are uncertain or unlikely to resemble past conditions, faith in the model may be misplaced. That’s when scenarios come in: they look at the future not in order to predict it, but to give us a vantage point on the present and highlight emerging issues which we might need to address.

When it comes to unpredictable events, how useful can data from the past really be? A classic example used by philosophers is the turkey that gets fed every morning, every single day at 9am. This leads the turkey to conclude that it will always be so. But then Christmas comes round...

Yes, there is no way for the turkey to gather data or evidence on the future. This example is often used in scenarios workshops. It’s the turkey’s perception that is the problem here. It might have different ideas of what’s coming if it were able to gather more information, more perspectives, more clues about what might be going on in the world.

Sticking with the avian theme, it’s the same with so-called black swan events. If you’re in Europe you might believe all swans are white, and seeing a black swan would shake your reality. But if you live in Australia, black swans are common. Whether it’s electoral upsets, the September 11 2001 attacks, or the current pandemic, shocking events only surprise us if we weren’t looking in the right places beforehand. Scenarios don’t guarantee that we find the right place to look, but they can teach us to identify our blind spots.

We can’t confidently predict the next 30 years of technological development, so where does this leave us?

Even if we can’t anticipate every technological development, scenarios can highlight issues about the social impact of technology. For example, deepfakes are one of our recent tech scare stories, but if you take Orwell’s 1984 there is already this anxiety about the Party rewriting the past; Orwell was inspired by Stalin removing people from photographs. So even before the advent of digital media, we were falsifying the history records.

In other instances, people painstakingly edit themselves into the records (see below)! This happened with one of the earliest women’s mountaineering attempts in Australia; the photographer in 1912 edited himself into the party. Instead of raising unanswerable questions about future technology, we can think about our values; about power dynamics; our hopes and fears; and the issues we need to consider as decision makers today.

Three sisters, Jenny, Sara, and Etty Clark, made the ascent accompanied by Jack Sairs, Willie Fraser, and photographer George Rowley.
The photographer in 1912 edited himself into the party.

In the top version, only five people appear in the photograph. The missing figure is George Rowley, the photographer himself.

Do you have any final thoughts on what makes effective scenarios work?

The Saïd Business School’s Rafael Ramírez reminded us at the Experimentation by Design event that scenarios are “a small set of manufactured possible future contexts of something, for someone, for a purpose, with a pre-specified usable interface, and used.”

To me that means: ground your scenarios in a real issue, anchor them with a present-day strategic decision that has to be made and which they will inform. That means identifying a key decision-maker too; in recent scenarios for the future of Norwegian education, we focussed on headteachers as the people who ultimately made the call on what tech was allowed in their school.

Scenarios should stretch your thinking and challenge you to reimagine where you’re headed strategically, but they’re always grounded in the here and now: looking at the weather on the mountain to understand what might happen in the valley below.

Useful resources

Making analogies to the imagined future when we can’t rely on analogies to the past.

Our Feral Future - Working on the Crises You Didn’t See Coming

Many Roads Ahead - Nesta Looks at the Future of Innovation Agencies

Danish Design Centre - Why Designing Scenarios Should Be Your Next Strategic Step

Thinking Seriously About How Things Change

Scenario Planning in the Age of COVID-19: Interview with Trudi Lang

To learn more about our efforts, visit our FutureFit project page – a major training intervention focused on upskilling and reskilling workers and doing innovative, robust research about what works.


Matt Finch

Matt Finch, of mechanicaldolphin.com, is a writer and foresight professional who helps communities, companies, and institutions to bring new ideas to light and put them into action.

Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Curriculum and Content Manager

Juan was a Curriculum and Content Manager supporting the Digital Frontrunners and Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programmes.

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