Where To: Deconstructing The Scenarios

This is the seventh and final of what has become a series of articles about thinking about our personal and collective futures. As I write this in May 2020—and on the cusp of June—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.

A few weeks ago (it seems like yesterday and an eternity ago, all at the same time) I was asked whether or not I had any thoughts about how we—as society, groups and individuals—might mobilize to shape the future, rather than waiting for it and wondering what might happen. This series has been the response to that request.

Last week’s article was a culmination of the thinking that I’d laid out, and presented a variety of potential scenarios for how re-entry from the pandemic might play out. It was entertaining as well as challenging to write. There was a great deal of research about where we are, what we know and what the limits of our knowledge currently are. That led to an analysis of what relevant questions would be—particularly in a fast-evolving situation—that the scenarios might explore. From there came the actual design and development of the scenarios.

The scenarios were designed to provoke critical thought about where we are, and where we might go from here. They provided multiple viewpoints, triggered by very different drivers, that outlined potential futures. Is one of them more likely to occur than the others? While that is a question of probability, it is unlikely that any one of the specific scenarios will transpire as written. And there is no guarantee that any one specific future will be realized. More importantly, we don’t get to choose.

Rather than any one specific future transpiring, it is more likely that some combination of the described futures may occur. How re-entry from the pandemic is experienced will vary in different regions of the world, different countries, and even different parts of the same country. More importantly—and this is one of the things the scenarios tried to illustrate—how re-entry is experienced will vary by employment, ethnicity, gender, relative health and socio-economic status.

What I wanted to do in this article is to peel back the curtains on how the scenarios were developed. My plan is to take you through the process, explore the choices, and provide an understanding of how to think about and develop scenarios as a way of illustrating alternate futures. That understanding not only will help you to develop your own, but it should support you being an informed consumer of scenarios developed by others.

A fundamental first question that needed to be wrestled with was what strategic question to answer. There were a number of things that might have been addressed: The development (and distribution) of a vaccine. The manner in which later waves of the pandemic will be responded to (and that is very likely a “will,” not a “might be.”) The economic impacts, whether writ large or explored organizationally. The societal impacts, whether in terms of globalism vs. protectionism or the manner in which community trust will thrive or be undermined. For all that we know, there are so very many things that we still don’t.

The underlying strategic question, framed fully, was “What will the process of re-entry from the first wave of the pandemic look like?” By itself, that’s an interesting question to try and answer. There are already countries and regions that are starting to open up (and others that are closing down again). It would be easy to feel like we already know what the answer is. At the same time, vast populations are still under different degrees of lock-down and will be for some time.

The spread of the virus—and the response to it—has varied significantly. Singapore, for example, earned praise for the proactive diligence of its initial response; they acted quickly, tested extensively and instituted a comprehensive and rigorous process of tracing. This in no way prevented a second state of lockdown in response to a new wave of infections that emerged as the country opened back up. Despite this, parts of the United States are re-opening (and more are being pressured) despite the fact that cases increase and there is no consistent or widespread means of testing or tracing.

In developing the scenarios, that led to an interesting first question: in which country they should be set? There is no region specifically cited (in fact, the scenarios are deliberately vague on this point). This was very much a product of design: my goal was to have the scenarios be broadly relevant, regardless of where they are being read. The United Kingdom and the United States were impractical for this purpose; both would have needed to be far too politicized in their focus.

In my head, the scenarios are based in Canada. That’s for a number of reasons. Unquestionably, I live in Canada, so it’s an environment that I know well. It is also a country that has been neither a leader nor a laggard in terms of its pandemic response. Responses have varied by province, who have primary responsibility for health care. Those variations are partly a product of how the pandemic has been experienced regionally, as well as in response to different political ideologies and leadership mindsets.

Variation in government approaches prompted in part how the uncertainties around the scenarios were developed and explored. Government response was one consideration. As we’ve seen globally, there is a great degree of variation in how governments are managing the pandemic. Some are driven by science, while others are less so. Not only is that having a significant influence on the rate and magnitude by which the disease is spreading, it is also shaping how the response is experienced—particularly economically and socially—by organizations and citizens.

There is also a great deal of variation in how organizations are responding to the pandemic, and preparing for an environment when workers being to return. Twitter famously led with an assertion that staff could work from home indefinitely, a decision later also taken—with some skepticism—by Facebook. Dyson, by contrast, started pushing for workers to return, generating significant push-back in return.

While working from home might be a viable for some employees, it is by no means an alternative for everyone. Nor is it one that everyone values. For those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, opportunities are neither so flexible or so wondrous. Amazon has just announced the end of its hazard pay of $2/hour for workers, impacting a sector of the workforce that is most vulnerable even while the pandemic continues and profits continue to be exceptionally strong.

Synthesize these dimensions together, and you get the basis of the scenarios that emerged. There are uncertainties around government response; while some governments are being proactive, deliberate and orderly in their management of the crisis, others border largely on chaos. There are also unquestionable uncertainties around organizational responses. Again, some organizations are deliberately and thoughtfully managing their responses, while others are ignoring or cynically avoiding responsible steps to support their employees return to work safely.

Overlay the dimensions of government and organizational responses, and at their intersection emerges four potential ways that the future might play out:

Figure 1 – The structure of the scenarios

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, you don’t have to lay out scenarios on a two-by-two matrix. While it’s a convenient shorthand for building opposing narratives, there is a risk that it also oversimplifies or ignores other critical dimensions that might be at play. Given the uncertainties I was focussing on—and for ease of explanation in this week’s article—it was a helpful structure to choose. But it’s important to recognize that it is not the only possible structure.

With the overarching structure of each scenario defined, the truly creative part of the exercise is meaningfully illustrating potential events and outcomes—and resulting opportunities and consequences—associated with each alternative.

The process of developing a scenario starts with the viewpoint that its particular uncertainties frame and present. You are asking the question, “In this combination of factors, how would circumstances play out?” There is a needed integrity of alignment; what occurs needs to flow visibly and realistically out of how the uncertainties show up in the scenario. There also needs to be plausibility; the scenario as presented needs to be not just possible, but also believable. Readers need to be able to connect the through-line from strategic question to uncertainties to actions and events.

Scenarios need to be plausible and pragmatic in order to fulfill their role. What we are trying to do is help the reader to expand their perception, and by doing that also expand upon the options and avenues that are available to them. If they cannot visualize themselves and/or their organizations in the scenario as described, then they are going to dismiss and ignore it. At that point, the exercise has failed to do its job properly; open minds close down in the face of ungrounded or far-fetched options.

The other aspect of scenario development that is critical is the crafting of story. It’s not enough to highlight potential events and outcomes, and presume that readers will meaningfully extrapolate opportunities and consequences all on their own. We cannot simply tell them what is going on, we have to show them. Narrative development is fundamental to good scenario development. When stories are accessible enough and sufficiently relatable—while also stretching perspectives and opening up possibilities—they have the potential to immerse readers in worlds and viewpoints that inspire and challenge.

Getting readers to the point of immersive engagement is the heavy lifting that scenarios are designed to do. This is the necessary result to prompt and inspire further contemplation. The point of scenarios isn’t that they present a variety of futures and invite audiences to choose one. They outline a variety of entirely possible futures—positive and negative—in order to force the question: “How can I succeed in a future like this?” From that answer, it is possible to consider necessary actions and strategic options that open up new possibilities.

Character plays a big role in how narrative can be developed. This is where some of the most significant choices for me came from in developing the presented scenarios. The person at the focal point of each scenario needed to be emblematic of the implications and consequences that would result. La-La-Land represented the abandonment of all logic and reason; it was appropriate to see these circumstances through the eyes of a scientist, and particularly one in healthcare. Where government attempted a managed response and private industry fails to follow through, the impacts will be felt most dearly by those low-down the food chain; enter Carlos. In a situation where organizations genuinely try to be responsive and responsible in the face of government failures, it was important to show the impacts that government inaction (or theatre) would have on the organizational responses. And where government and organizations both behaved responsively and responded proactively, it was helpful to focus on an every-person who was nonetheless also a contributor to those outcomes.

Scenarios are a way to challenge; they call into question viewpoints, they confront ideologies and they prompt broader perspectives. Within that expansive perspective, it is hoped that new opportunities and necessary actions emerge. The scenarios that I presented last week were very much intended to do just that. They reinforce that while we are all in the same storm, we are not in the same boat. The boat that we find ourselves in will define—or curtail—our options. Mobilization, then, is in part making sure that the boat we find ourselves in is sufficiently sturdy, appropriately equipped and up to the task of the voyage that we find ourselves on.

4 Comments to “Where To: Deconstructing The Scenarios”

  1. Nancy Batty says:

    Thank you so much, Mark, for this series. It’s really useful to me in thinking through “possible futures.” I also think it helps us to draw conclusions about what we, as both citizens and workers, need to advocate for as we move through the effects of this pandemic.

    And thanks for leading us through the development of your scenarios. Scenario building can be a useful tool to tackle any problem.

    Hope you get out for some r and r on that motorcycle of yours. Stay safe.


    • Mark Mullaly says:

      You are so very welcome, Nancy. And thank you for the inspiration to write it! I didn’t quite know it was going to go all the way to where it did, but I’m quite pleased and proud about how it evolved

      Scenarios can indeed be wonderfully useful tools, if only to force the realization that there is no one way forward, and there is no guaranteed future, and what future we get is partly probability and partly up to us to shape and define. It creates agency, opportunity and obligation, rather than relying simply on prediction.

      Stay safe, also. Hope you continue to be well!

      P.S. Hoping for ride very soon. Like tomorrow. 😃

  2. Nancy Batty says:

    PS I made the chicken parmigiana. Thanks for the recipe. It was a lot of work but very tasty.

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