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Using Scenarios to Build Robust Strategies

Why construct scenarios?

One thing is known about the future: It will be very different from what we expect!

Ours is an era of change and discontinuity in every aspect of life. Stability is being overshadowed by chaos daily. Just as fifteen years ago, virtually no one could have predicted the impact of the Internet on life at the turn of the century, so today there are nascent forces at work that will dramatically shape life in the year 2015 and beyond that few can discern. Those individuals, teams and organizations that anticipate possible futures and prepare for them have a clear advantage over those who simply react to tomorrow after it's already here.

FutureTense! is a new service of New Context that takes a structured approach to testing out present strategy against possible future developments and assessing the outcomes. It is a creative and engrossing way to turn raw information into stories that contain knowledge and demonstrate foresight. FutureTenseª should help any organization facing:

• major strategic decisions, e.g., a merger
• long term planning choices, e.g., new product lines
• large capital investments in plant, real estate and/or equipment
• a high level of uncertainty in the business environment, e.g., ambiguities in the regulatory environment
• tension in an executive team over strategic direction or
• the anxiety people experience when a situation feels chaotic or out-of-control

FutureTense!™ yields a map that looks something like this:


This sort of a map provides the client system with insight into the larger contextual forces that are shaping its more "local" playing field. Awareness of these macro drivers shaping the future enhances a company's choices in the present by identifying the most critical, the most uncertain and finding key leverage points.

The Elements of the FutureTense! approach

While the specifics of a project with a client would have to be defined, typically the FutureTense! approach has several components:

Setting the agenda by establishing a key issue or major decision that involves a long term planning horizon.
Establishing a “scanning team” to look broadly at the trends in the larger social, political, technical and economic environment to identify key forces that will affect the organization's topic of interest
Facilitating the development of a set of stories/scenarios that map out possible and plausible developments in the future regarding the organization and its key issue
Assessing the robustness of current strategy in light of these future possibilities
Developing an on-going competitive intelligence system to help the organization identify what type of future is actually unfolding, i.e., which scenario has the closest connection to events
Periodically revising the scenarios in light of new facts and insights

Steps in the FutureTense! Process

The actual roll out of a FutureTense! project would be defined through a series of design conversation and the process would be tailored to meet your specific needs.

The following is one possible framework:

Pre-work to identify the decision issue and initiate environmental scanning activities
A set of interviews with members of the executive team. The individual interviews are designed to get at:
A. The executives' view of the key uncertainties in the business and its environment

B. A picture of each executive's good news/bad news future

C. Discussion of key uncertainties

Facilitated generation of scenario narratives by an internal core team to develop highly plausible, yet radically different, pictures of possible futures along with the steps that made it possible to get from the present to these futures.
A full day large group meeting with a cross section of stakeholders to:
Explore the company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Familiarize participants with scenario thinking through an exercise that will generate conversation about the company's situation under the scenarios developed by the core team.
"Wind tunneling" exercises to see how current and proposed strategies stand up to the test of alternative scenariors.
Development of strategic options in light of learnings from these exercises.
Institutionalize an on-going, facilitated scanning activity as a way to orinet all strategic conversations to the organization's scenarios, scan for milestones that indicate which scenario is emerging, take appropriate action and cement the organization's competitive intelligence function.
Periodic review of the scenarios and strategic plan.

This overview of the scenario approach can be modularized. For example, a client might wish to assess the results of initial findings before making an investment in the full-blown program. Regardless of the variation of FutureTense! selected, a focus on the future to any extent tends to build camaraderie and awareness in the present.


Michael Sales, Ed.D of New Context Consulting has twenty-five years of experience as a consultant to business, education and non-profits on leadership, organization development and the management of change. He holds a doctorate in Organization Theory from Harvard.

Audrey Schriefer, founder and principal of Schriefer, a strategic planning and management consultancy helping clients develop robust strategies using principles of scenario planning, systems thinking and appreciative inquiry. She has masters degrees in business and architecture.