It is unhelpful to talk about something as though it were a unity when, in fact, it contains multitudes. Issues around scenarios are fraught with such over-simplification. They are used according to differing standards of discourse and debate, for disparate audiences, using heterogeneous participants to multiple ends. We cannot say anything useful about how scenarios can create "new realities" until we have some sense of the situations which this evokes, the styles which might be used and the criteria which may be used to judge progress.
It is a good analytical test to see which component parts one cannot remove from a concept without destroying its fundamental nature. The concept of 'scenarios' seems to contain three such elements.
1. Scenarios are used in the communication of ideas about complex systems and in clarifying relationships which are made complex by differing or limited insight. Scenarios are of limited use in simple systems, where issues of risk and uncertainty are easily quantified and handled accordingly.
2. Scenarios describe the alternative outcomes of such a system. Scenarios are internally coherent patterns of belief about this system, perhaps formally supported by evidence. What constitutes "evidence" may, however, be values-determined.
This structure is useful to the degree to which the stakeholders have some interest in and perhaps some influence on this system. Scenarios actively set out to describe aspects of the chosen system which are germane to the project stakeholders, and so are not value-free. However, they also set out to span the useful range of the selected system and, as a result, they present challenge as well as comfort.
3. Scenarios are a tool used at a particular stage in a process of engagement. This stage may be temporary - as in a one-off project - or it may exist as a 'conversation' which develops and spawns projects and activities.
Scenarios of themselves change nothing. If they are to bring about change, then those managing events must deploy this tool kit as fits their needs. Scenarios are a very flexible tool, and so can be deployed in many ways, to many ends. There is no one way to make change with scenarios.
These three elements - the deliverable, the target system and the implementation - vary enormously with stakeholder interest, sophistication and cohesion. One way of simplifying this is to consider two areas in which clarity may or may not exist.
One can argue that a "good" scenario process would force its way to synthesis amidst these ideas. However, this is simply not possible with some stakeholder groups.
The figure contrasts this issue of mixed values and limited insight. There is a social consensus as to what is right, but no understanding of why this should be so in the quadrant labelled 0. The consensus breaks down in 1. There is a strong sense of what is going on in quadrant 2, but no agreement as to what would constitute a sensible response. In quadrant 3, however, social processes have run such that both the analysis of the problem and the nature of a sensible solution are agreed.
The upshot of this analysis is that scenarios can be designed to create change, but that the change which occurs will be to both insight and to values. Which of these preponderate will depend on where the exercise is located on the matrix which we have just explored.
"Shake-up" scenarios can be helpful in challenging systems which have got stuck, but they can also look like agitprop. If a company has become smug about how it believes the world to run - and if its values have quietly fragmented without anyone noticing - then it has a major journey ahead of it to get all of this in hand. The state of the USSR in 1980 needed its Perestroika for this journey to start. Societies which are in the same state are often propelled by events in which the authorities fail, or where a story is told that breaks the current consensus. This, as with Shake-up scenarios, propels the situation from quadrant 0 to quadrant 1. It is an uncomfortable business, and not something to be undertaken lightly.
"Reconciliation" scenarios - getting Tamils and Sinhala to talk together, or Serbs and Kosovars - lie in quadrant 1, where both values and analysis are fragmented. The aim is to move to quadrant 2, where the values are still mixed, but there is an understanding that actions have consequences, and that whatever it is that you may want as a group, you still have to play in the same world as the other people.
"Cohesion" scenarios are aimed at finding common ground amongst people who broadly agree that the world is round and the sky is blue, but who do not agree at all about the action which this implies. The vast body of political discourse operates in this quadrant. In an applied situation, however, industry and regulatory bodies can use scenarios to find new ways of thinking about goals and debate. The upshot of such a process is something like a balanced score card - an understanding that to operate in a complex multi-stakeholder world, you do not have just one criterion (profit, zero accidents) but a mass of desirable trade-offs which have to be balanced. This takes people into quadrant 1, where the machinery is clear and the goals are also clear.
Plainly, it is not a goal of policy to go from quadrant 3 to 0, or indeed anywhere else on the matrix. Mature organisations which have used scenarios for some time will, for the most part, practice 'cohesion' scenarios, perhaps supplementing with focused local work that operates on other parts of the matrix.
The oil company Shell has worked with scenarios for decades. Shell's published scenarios have migrated almost completely around the matrix. The early work was a call to action. The oil industry had changed, former truths were no longer so, and previous norms and values no longer worked. The subsequent scenario rounds began to stress the need for complex, coherent values: was Shell to be thought of as existing "for" the shareholders, or was it to be aimed to satisfy a broader group, not least of them national governments? Latterly, the stress seems to have moved more to consider how Shell fits into the developing trans-national culture or cultures, and how to interpret its capabilities to that culture.
Readers will recall three irreducible components to scenarios - that they communicate, that they express possibilities or options, that they are a part of a tool kit and that they effective or not to the degree to which they are used in an appropriate manner. We have since seen that the internal state of the stakeholders defines the meaning of the term "appropriate".
The table cross-references the key components of any scenario process (columns, as discussed in the first section) with the stakeholder-defined feasible types of scenario (rows, as discussed in the previous section.) Flag symbols reflect the relative importance of each intersection. Thus "Shake-up" scenarios are all about communicating ideas, whilst "Cohesion" scenarios are action-focused insofar as they deal with people who have relatively common ideas and values.
Please note that "Action" here does not equate to change induction per se, but rather to the conscious choice of the action to be undertaken. If one drops a new capability into a society - mechanised transport, refrigeration - it will induce change, but one will not be in charge of it. The result will emerge through social churning, but be a very major shift. By contrast, introducing performance related pay into a manufacturing line is a conscious process aimed at getting a defined result, albeit a rather small one in the grand sweep of history.
So we find that we are dealing with at least nine things, comprising the cells in the table which we have just examined. If we want to simplify this, we are nevertheless still dealing with three elements, the types of scenario which we discovered by exploring the matrix. Each has three (different) steps with extremely different processes and quality parameters. If we want to talk about how to induce change, then we have three "spaces" in which to do this, and they are not at all like each other. That is, in all likelihood, why people seem have difficulty with the implementation of scenarios - because they are dealing with many things, and not with only one.
Please note that we offer standard two day courses on scenario planning.
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