Where To: Planning For Uncertainty

This is the fifth of what has become a series of articles about thinking about our personal and collective futures. As I write this in May 2020, the world is still in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic. There aren’t yet any clear pathways forward or answers on how this will end. It doesn’t mean that we can’t forge some for ourselves.

The future is a challenging place to contemplate. We might have aspirations. There may be fears. In many instances, there is anxiety. What if the thing we desperately hope for is not realized? What if the thing that we are most apprehensive of comes to pass?

What all of this reflects is our complex and complicated relationship with uncertainty. That relationship can best be summed up by the simple statement, “We know uncertainty exists, and we really, really don’t like it.”

The challenge is that uncertainty never goes away. Probability is a fundamental reality. Distribution curves are weird, and occasionally massively unpredictable. While we want things in nice, easy, well-structured boxes, mother nature has a habit of crashing in the living room of our psyche, unkempt, unmannered, mildly hungover and frequently in need of a shower.

As I’ve already pointed out a few weeks ago, one of the ways that we complicate thinking about the future is imagining that there is one, fixed answer. We pretend that we can definitively answer the question, “What do we want to be when we grow up?” This is no more answerable, and no more fixed, than asking our organizations, “Where should we strategically get to in five years?” In both instances, we might like a fixed answer. In all instances, we accumulate more opportunities and experiences and roles than we necessarily thought possible.

A different way of thinking about questions of the future are, “Where would we like to move towards? What direction looks promising? What changes most align with our general aspirations? How will we know we are straying from a direction that is meaningful and relevant for us?”

Even answers to those questions have to be tempered with the reality of, “What’s going on in the rest of the world? What are the big, scary things that might derail us? What are the neat, exciting things that we could take advantage of? Who should we be aware of as we move forward, because they’re competing with us for the position we want?”

Traditional strategic planning tries to bring the outside dimension in through something called an “environmental scan.” Usually, this takes the form of a “SWOT” exercise, an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The strengths and weaknesses are supposed to be ours. The opportunities and threats are deemed to represent the outside world. The intersection and confluence of all of them is supposed to magically help us to coalesce around our purpose and direction.

What I’ve been exploring over the last few weeks, through the lens of our current Covid-19-induced reality, is how uncertainty can get factored in through the lens of scenarios. With greater or lesser degrees of explicitness, I’ve examined how scenarios can factor in personally, organizationally and societally.

Scenario planning is an incredibly useful framework and process. It’s a less obvious and more challenging one to work with, as will become readily apparent. In my view, however, any complication is only making explicit what people don’t like: thinking about the future takes work, it isn’t for the faint of heart, and even when you’ve invested the time, there is no definitive answer. Everything, ultimately, reduces down to the simple reality of, “it depends.” As always, the magic of that truth is then being willing to meaningfully explore the essential follow-up question of, “depends on what?”

The essence of scenario planning lives at the intersection of uncertainty and storytelling. Specifically, scenarios are designed to make real (or at least more realistic) the possibilities facing us. An essential value of scenario planning is that it makes explicit that there is no one, single future. The future lives across a spectrum of possibilities. Scenario planning brings those possibilities to life in a way that let’s us consider their implications, good and bad. From there, we can think about how we choose to respond and move forward (as opposed to letting the future just ride rough-shod over us).

The exploration of potential personal futures presented one way of exploring scenarios. It set up two dimensions of uncertainty to explore: whether or not you have a job (or at least one you value) post-pandemic, and whether pursuing a long-held personal hobby as an actual business makes sense. Each uncertainty was presented in terms of polar opposites: you have a job or you don’t, and your side project will or won’t work out. From there, it’s not a hard leap to get to a two-by-two matrix that explores each of the possibilities that were outlined.

A slightly different approach was taken in exploring organizational futures. The uncertainties were there, but they weren’t so explicit. The article framed uncertainty over how the pandemic would end, the health of the economy when it did, and the degree to which organizations felt comfortable exploring specific options and choices of moving forward. Related to that is the comfort we feel in making plans and choices in uncertain circumstances. There are a lot more variables in those uncertainties, and meaningful scenarios would require making some specific choices and assumptions.

Assumptions and choices more explicitly showed up in the article exploring what our societal future looks like. The uncertainties here were framed as choices that we are facing, and how those choices play out (and the influence we can have on the choices being made). An essential choice up front was in the stance adopted by countries in approaching the pandemic: do we compete, or do we cooperate? Specific choices were also presented in how contact tracing gets approached, the degree of openness and honest that governments have in their citizens, and the degree of trust (and follow-on compliance) that citizens have in response to their governments.

Each of the options presented can be viewed as a binary. In actual fact, there is a spectrum of possible outcomes within each choice. There is a range of factors that will influence those outcomes, and there will be aspects of the spectrum where more options cluster, and others were there are fewer. Building scenarios here again would require some work, and would entail making some educated judgements around the key uncertainties in each choice.

With as many factors in play as some discussions have outlined, significantly more scenarios could also be developed. Making the decision of how many scenarios to explore and develop is one of the key judgements that get made in developing good options. Too many, and your audience gets overwhelmed, which fundamentally undermines the purpose of the exercise. Too few and you run the risk of driving your audience towards prescribed and pre-determined choices. This again defeats the purpose of building scenarios.

One of the neatest presentation of choices was in what have come to be known as the Mont Fleur scenarios. Conducted when South Africa was opening up from apartheid, and facilitated by Adam Kahane, the exercise brought together key stakeholders from across the organization (bridging many deep political and moral divides in the process). The scenarios specifically contemplated the future of the country post-apartheid. The results of the exercise were published in the newspapers of the time, and become a topic of national discussion and debate.

What was delightful about how the scenarios were structured was that each scenario was the product of specific choices facing the country. Would a settlement be reached in current negotiations? Would it lead to a rapid and decisive transition? Would the government’s policies be sustainable? Each question led to the next. A negative answer to any one question produced a problematic and troubling outcome. Only one scenario navigated close to a positive future, and it was one on which many changes in policy, politics and perception were predicated.

What scenarios do is bound off perspectives so that, within identified choices, their implications can be studied. The choices that are made are significant, and fundamentally shape how possible results are presented. There is a lot of finesse and editorial judgement that goes into developing a good set of scenarios. The results have to be plausible, meaningful and believable. They also need to allow for agency; they need to illustrate where there is room for choice. The choices that are made cannot be assumed to be virtuous, obvious or pre-conceived.

While making choices sets boundaries, the reality is that the choices being made are directly responsive to the biggest uncertainties being faced. In other words, they’re guesses that pretend a specific answer so that we can move on with exploring what that answer might mean. The reality in all instances is greyer and more nuanced than this black-and-white perspective presumes.

There isn’t going to be one scenario that appeals (although one might be more appealing). There also isn’t going to be one specific scenario that transpires. The more likely reality is that some combination of futures is going to come to pass. While scenarios let us look at specific and deliberate choices, the reality is grey; it will be more likely that futures combine and intersect.

We also don’t get a choice in the future that we get. For all the steps that we take to choose our approach to the future, many aspects of how it will actually arrive and be experienced are out of our control. In exploring scenarios, there may be futures that we find more desirable. There may also be ones we would like to avoid. Despite that, all of them are possible.

We might nudge towards one outcome or another. There are ways that we might increase the likelihood of a positive outcome. There are also potential strategies to reduce the likelihood, or at least attempt to manage the impacts, of futures that are less favourable. But that is not to say that we can fully control what ultimately happens. The very fact that the drivers of the scenarios are the most critical uncertainties that we face means that all scenarios are possible.

Our most effective approach is to work towards strategies that allow us to be successful in all (or at least the greatest number of) possible futures. This is where the nuance and value of multiple potential scenarios becomes useful. Rather than a static environmental scan that doesn’t differentiate, figuring out how to navigate through multiple uncertainties and emerge successfully out the other side focusses our attention on they dynamics that matter, and the moves that make the greatest difference.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that what makes scenarios most valuable is also what makes them most open to criticism. Scenarios are stories of the possible future. They reflect what might happen. And they consciously present multiple, contrasting representations of that future. For many, this means that they take on a fictional, make-believe appearance. Because they are without certainty, they are sometimes devalued. But stories have been valuable for centuries specifically because the offer insights, examples and cautionary tales. Downplaying and dismissing stories because they are stories risks being completely blind-sided by the future when it crashes down upon you.

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