Scenario Planning

What is it?

A scenario is a story that describes a different way for things to be. You might use it to call attention to a problem or to highlight an opportunity. Scenarios are valuable because they are accessible; nearly anyone from any discipline can read and evaluate a story on a human level, without needing deep technical, organizational, or political knowledge.

Scenario Planning is a form of provocative, "what-if" thinking that helps us strategically consider how the world will be different as a result of our actions and efforts. It "attempts to capture the richness and range of possibilities, stimulating decision makers to consider changes they would otherwise ignore. At the same time, it organizes these possibilities into narratives that are easier to grasp than great volumes of data. Above all, however, scenarios are aimed at challenging the prevailing mindset." Schoemaker, Paul. "Scenario Planning: A Tool for Strategic Thinking." Sloan Management Review, no. Winter (1995): 25.

In designing for impact, the Scenario Planning method forces the rigorous creation of multiple scenarios and their evaluation and comparison. This rigor provokes designers to investigate alternative end states, to consider the relationship between them, and to identify optimal targets as well as potential constraints and roadblocks.

How do I do it?

Follow these steps:

  1. Define your evaluation's scope, including time frame and the major issues you are investigating. Consider starting with a yearlong time frame. Although business strategic planning may look at ten years, the reliability of a prediction diminishes with every year projected. Then begin to describe the thematic quality of your interest. Are you concerned with increases in crime? The role of policy on the homeless? The nature of sustainable farming? Define the scope as it relates to your project topic.
  2. Create a trend table:
  3. Trend Uncertainties Stakeholders
    Articulate the basic trends that you see affecting your scope. What new companies, products, services, policies, regulations, or people are beginning to play a role in your particular area of focus? List these, one per row. Describe the uncertainties related to the trend. For example, if you see a trend related to increased federal intervention in a given social issue, uncertainty exists in the staying power of that intervention;—if the political party in power is voted out, the trend may reverse. Describe the stakeholders involved in the issues you are planning around. Be broad in your definition of involvement; try to identify all stakeholders, and describe their roles, interests, and the power or influence they have over the situation.
  4. Combine the details above and look at how they interact. Consider using these methods:
    • Create an "ideal scenario," in which everything goes according to plan, and the future plays out exactly as you desire. What is the end state in your time frame?
    • Create a "doomsday scenario," in which everything goes wrong.
    • Create scenarios in which your major uncertainties play out in different directions. What happens when a conservative set of policymakers come into power? What about a liberal set?

    When you create scenarios, you are writing stories—of how the world will look. Because you are assuming external events, these narratives often take the form of cause-and-effect situations, where an entity does something (launches a new product, creates a new policy) that forces other entities to react.

  5. Validate your scenarios by checking for internal consistency. Are your anticipated trends likely to play out in the time frame you identified in #1? What are plausible ways for involved stakeholders to react? To judge that plausibility, consider stakeholders' relative level of risk aversion, based on previous events.
  6. Name the scenarios (use short, action-oriented names) so they become tangible points of departure for further research and evaluation. Many proponents of scenario-planning methods suggest using scenarios to form quantitative models that let you adjust financial variables to understand how events play out. For example, today you could create a quantitative financial model that a) includes the actual amount of federal money dedicated to a certain cause that interests you, b) assumes a percentage of that money is dedicated to relevant initiatives, and as a result, c) predicts the amount of spending power a given nonprofit will have for your cause, if it were to agree with your initiatives.
  7. When should I use it?

    Use scenario planning in the initial strategic phases of considering a future—at the beginning of the design process. But use it only after contextual research, immersion, and other forms of participation with various stakeholders. Because of the number of assumptions you'll probably make, it's important to have an understanding of the topic and discipline you are engaged in.

    What is the output, and how can I use it?

    Scenario-planning sessions provide written stories that represent alternative views of the future. These stories can be shared and used as mechanisms for continually evaluating and revising design ideas.

    Where can I learn more?

    Read "Scenario Planning: A Tool for Strategic Thinking", a pdf, by Paul J. H. Schoemaker.

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