January 2016

Plan for today…for the future is unpredictable

by Harry French

Eventually, they say, the Sun will expand into a Red Giant and pull the Earth closer and closer to its orbit. The oceans and the atmosphere will boil away and global warming will increase to around 2000 degrees Celsius….This will occur approximately five billion years from now. Until then anything can happen[1].

This pretty much characterizes the lack of clarity and the resultant, almost powerlessness, that organizations and communities experience today in planning for their future.  They are immersed in a convergence of political, environmental, scientific and technological developments, social dynamics, and economic conditions that are interacting and evolving, providing our organizations and communities with an ever confusing array of different challenges and opportunities.

Perhaps we should stop worrying about the future and focus on what we humans do the best – focus on our actions and strategies in the present? Does this sound counter-intuitive?  Well read on and we will show you how to use scenario thinking as a tool that focuses on getting the actions and strategies right in the moment – right NOW. We’ll also help you to understand how to use scenario thinking as a change management tool for your organization or community.

What are scenarios?

“Scenarios are stories about the way the world might turn out tomorrow, stories that can help us recognize and adapt to changing aspects of our present environment. They form a method for articulating different pathways that might exist for (us) tomorrow…Scenario thinking is about making choices today with an understanding of how they might turn out”. 2

Scenarios operate in the realm of uncertainty. They do not simply extrapolate current trends into the future – this is forecasting. Developments in the environment can be explained in different ways – different cause and effect structures can be seen as alternative explanations of what is going on. As it is not possible to assign probabilities to the different structures on any statistically sound basis, multiple futures which are all equally plausible will need to be addressed. Scenarios, present distinctly different images of future uncertainty; therefore given that it is impossible to know precisely how the future will play out, a good decision, an action to take or strategy to adopt is one that plays out well across several scenarios. We call this a “robust” strategy or action.

Once articulated, scenarios become the “test-beds” for organizational and community actions and help answer the questions, how will actions we adopt today play out in the future? They also provide a process path that encourages stakeholders to open their unique perspective to the beliefs and knowledge of others in a safe and respectful way. In our methodology, scenario thinking is a change management tool.  By broadening personal cause and effect perspectives scenario thinking facilitates learning and change in organizations and communities.

How is the Metapraxis approach to scenario thinking different?

As stakeholders in organizations and communities – leaders, volunteers, suppliers, employees- we naturally resist uncertainly and ambiguity. The instinctive tendency is to look for predictability – command and control is the always the desired demand of the day – although rarely achievable. Scenarios are often presented as gradations along a continuum—“pessimistic”, “realistic”, “optimistic” or a 2 x 2 matrix of key trends.  The approach in fact represent a single viewpoint with derivative options that fail to reflect the complexity of the future world. And quiet frankly, given the interdependencies of today’s world, is it reasonable to rely on two critical trends in a 2x2 matrix to drive the development of scenarios. We don’t think so. It may not even be a practical choice given the challenges of building consensus around what matters to most people today.

But more importantly, stakeholders cannot see themselves “in” these perspectives. They see themselves as observers of extreme situations. If people, those who ultimately implement action and/or agree to change cannot see themselves in the situation how can we expect them to own the actions that need to be taken in the turbulent and complex environment in which we live?

The purpose of scenario thinking is not to identify the most likely future, but to create a map of uncertainty — to acknowledge and examine the visible and hidden forces that are driving us toward the unknown future. Scenarios are created and used in sets of multiple stories that capture a range of possibilities, good and bad, expected and surprising. They are designed to stretch our thinking about emerging changes and the opportunities and threats that the future might hold. They allow us to weigh our choices more carefully when making short-term and long-term strategic decisions. To make these choices stakeholders have to literally “see” themselves as “actors” in the story.

To allow stakeholders to act or to engage “in” the story, we have adopted a scenario thinking approach based upon the work of W.McWhinney and developed in his book Paths of Change (1997)4. This is a theory of social change, and is the most comprehensive of action-oriented theory available. In our approach, people see and interpret the issues differently, and in accordance with their own way of looking at the complex world. People take their worldview for granted, and are often unaware that it is different from that of other people. In our approach, there are four worldviews or four realities. We all have a preference for one Reality but can operate in others. For more information on using scenarios in your organization contact Metapraxis at







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