Exploring Alternative Futures


In business we are all fixated on the future, to the extent that there are professional futurists who sell their expertise to large corporations on the basis that they can extrapolate from the past and present to give us a view of what the future might bring. That ability to see into the future would give tremendous opportunity to a company’s leadership. The ability to predict the rise and fall of markets, to see new trends before they become trends and to produce products ready to be sold to a receptive market. Knowing what sort of disruptive technology or business model is around the corner waiting to kill off your company would give you a unique competitive advantage if only it were possible. This prescience has long been a popular theme for Hollywood scriptwriters, but is it more elusive in the real world?

There is a famous quote from American cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes: “You know what’s weird? Day-by-day nothing seems to change. But pretty soon, everything’s different”. There is truth in that. It is hard to see change when it is incremental. As a manager, most of the decisions you make today are focused on making your organisation perform well in the future. It’s not difficult to agree that we need to think about the future. The issue is how we do it.

There are some very effective ways to explore possible futures and to prepare for them when they turn up. Judging from past examples of change and disruption, our future business challenges will be complex and messy, with many unexpected influences coming together in a unique pattern of cause and effect.

One way of looking at the future that genuinely seems to bear fruit, is scenario planning. It was quite popular in the 1980s and early 1990s but has fallen a little out of flavour in recent years. The world of corporate scenario planning basically emerged in the Shell Oil Company in 1965. Jimmy Davidson, the head of economics and planning for Shell’s exploration and production division, started an activity called long-term studies at their London headquarters. His appointment marked the start of a remarkable and ongoing experiment in using scenario planning to engage with an uncertain future.

What marks out scenario planning as different for the general thinking ahead that companies do, is that it does not rely on extrapolating a future based on the present or the recent past. Many managers think that tomorrow will only be a variation on today, whereas scenario planning actively looks for alternative and unexpected futures. It is a more powerful way to prepare a company to take advantage of its own unique future.

It is practical to consider running a good scenario planning exercise at a live seminar or conference, with key people in your organisation in attendance. A day can be enough time for people to experience alternative futures and get insights into how to plan for the unexpected. It is often asked if it works in helping companies deal with uncertain futures and unexpected events. In Shell, it seemed to work well on focused topics and less well on the global issues.  It also helped shift the overall mind sets of managers in terms of how they looked outside of their businesses at the way the external world might influence what they were trying to achieve.

The key to successful scenario planning is making sure that your choice of possible futures is diverse and well researched. It brings together an unusual selection of external experts or commentators who will help bring a scenario to life. The more detailed and rich the planning and writing of the scenario is, the more likely it is to provide a powerful learning experience for the participants.

Using external experts brings diversity, depth and detail to scenarios and increases the potential learning. Event agencies that have experience in this field can devise exciting live environments, coupled with immersive multi-media, to add a unique reality to a scenario, making it more real and therefore more impactful for the participants.

Scenario planning doesn’t predict the future but it does help managers flex their creative mental muscles by exploring very different alternative futures. The exercise has enormous value in generating more agile and prepared thinking amongst your management teams, focusing them on asking the right questions. A corporate vision needs context to make it robust and imagination to navigate future, healthy growth. Scenario planning at your next event is a practical way to help make that happen.

Email us to find out how we could help you explore alternative futures by creating immersive live scenario experiences.

Exploring Alternative Futures

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