ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

March 1998


Teaching An Organization To Learn

Scenario Planning

The Sinking Of The Titanic

Through Rain, Sleet And New Quality Initiatives

Striving To Deliver Excellence

Not Your Typical Oil Change


Reality: What A Concept
by Peter Block

Reflections On The Baldrige Winners
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Scenario Planning
Seeing Today's Needs Through Stories of Tomorrow

The future, it could be argued, is the most basic organizational resource - the time we need to realize our goals. Between now and the "future" many of us imagine everything will fall into place; things will gel; our efforts will come to fruition. It's what we work toward and diligently plan for, but attempting to actually predict the future is futile. There are too many uncertainties, and change is constant and accelerating. Yet there are many organizations who simply cannot afford to operate from a "whatever will be, will be" perspective - those who must make informed decisions today in order to deliver on expectations or remain viable 10, 20 or 30 years from now. For them, there is a tool called scenario planning.

What Is Scenario Planning?
Scenario planning is a methodology that helps managers decide what to do next by describing conceivable outcomes of various decisions made in the context of alternative situations. It is, essentially, short story telling - with characters, plots and results rooted in logic and the organization's real issues, though not necessarily in reality. How can stories of the future help managers? Think of the Dickens holiday classic, "A Christmas Carol." Ebenezer Scrooge is content conducting business as usual until a realistic, dream-state vision of "Christmas-future" enables him to more clearly see and understand the error of his ways. Motivated, in this case, by terror and remorse, he makes significant changes in his operation. The point is that a compelling picture, a believable vision of tomorrow, can help drive decision making today.

Here's How it Works
Scenario planning goes like this. Through a participative process - involving internal management as well as input from suppliers, customers, influencers and others - an organization's key planning issues, forces, perceptions and beliefs are combined in fresh and innovative ways to create thematically distinct, plausible yet challenging views of the future. The diverse themes are conveyed in concise, individual narratives or "scenarios," each weaving a detailed description of cause/effect events leading to the future.
Consultant, Joe Willmore, principal of Willmore Consulting Group, has brought scenario planning to such clients as The Smithsonian Institution, The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Research and Development. He explains its value this way: "It is not the goal of scenario planning to convince someone that a specific account of the future is correct. Rather, the goal is to challenge the conventional wisdom, to identify and probe untested assumptions, uncover blind spots and to offer up future possibilities that an organization may have never even considered." The purpose is not to predict the future or even to venture a guess at it. Instead, the scenarios - and the planning disciplines that bring these snapshots of the future about - serve as a kind of mirror from which an organization can observe never-before-seen images of itself and its situation. As Willmore explains, "We learn through the act of doing scenario planning, and our broadened context leaves us better prepared for adapting to the future - whatever it may hold."

Past Looks at the Future
Scenario planning originated at the end of World War II as a method for military planning. The U.S. Air Force employed the technique to imagine and prepare for possible actions from the opposition. In the early 1970s, Royal Dutch/Shell benefited greatly when the scenario-based efforts of then Shell Planner, Pierre Wack, helped describe and open managers' minds to the possibility of an OPEC-driven oil price shock - what came to be known as the "energy crisis of the 70s." Shell management's mental preparedness for the 'unimaginable' enabled them to act decisively while others reeled, and it paid off admirably in the following years. In the early 90s, the scenario planning experiences of Royal Dutch/Shell and mail order garden tool company, Smith & Hawken, formed the basis for author/consultant Peter Schwartz' book, "The Art of the Long View", which helped popularize scenario planning among organizations of all sizes.

Scenario Planning Today: The EPA
Typically used as one element within an organization's overall strategic planning effort, scenario planning or, as some prefer, 'scenario learning,' helps managers grapple with, and learn from, the most challenging facet of any plan - the unknowable. And it seems the more future-focused an organization needs to be, the more useful scenario planning is. The Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Research and Development (ORD) is a prime example. Consider the EPA's task as an organization: to protect human health and the environment for future generations. The future is integral to their mission. Specifically, ORD's job is to provide the science that supports the EPA's function. Their role is at once fundamental and broad, with responsibilities crossing over the agency's various program offices such as Air, Water, Solid Waste, Pollution Prevention, Toxic Substances and International Activities.

The ORD manages research and knowledge development which originates both internally and through external sources, such as university-based researchers and facilities. The office tackles such issues as biological and chemical health threats in air and water, the ozone, global climate changes and other issues of current and future significance. They must know where to focus resources today - which threats and areas of expertise demand attention, when to build laboratories, where to build them and how to staff them - in order to meet the environmental information demands of tomorrow. Lead times for initiatives are extreme, and all of this must operate within the uncertainties of a politically-driven system. Despite such heavy responsibilities and challenges, the EPA is, in reality, no more assured of accurate predictions of the future than any other organization. What to do? "The EPA and the ORD have historically adhered to rigorous long-term planning and improvement efforts," explains Rhode Island-based ORD Scientist/facilitator Walt Galloway. "Like many organizations, we've traditionally viewed our situation, strengths and opportunities from a 'current vs. desired' perspective. We work to identify improvement opportunities that will move us to the desired condition, and construct action plans which organize the opportunities, assign priorities, timing and responsibilities. But this adds another dimension," says Galloway. "We see scenario planning as a way to broaden our context of planning greatly with the addition of a 'futuring' element to the process."

The Process Used with the EPA/ORD
In 1997, Joe Willmore was hired to conduct a full-day scenario planning workshop within in the ORD's multi-day annual planning session. How did he prepare? Following in-depth internal and external fact finding which focused on, as Willmore describes, "uncovering the big trends, the key uncertainties, untested assumptions, blind spots and the conventional thinking of the ORD," four scenarios were written and shared with key administrators prior to the workshop. "It's important in constructing scenarios to be thorough," explains Willmore. "Scenarios must build upon the real issues and forces affecting the organization, and they should be written to challenge the conventional point of view. Plausibility is important, but it's also important for scenarios to expand the organization's boundaries of consideration." Following top level buy-in, the scenarios formed the basis for the daylong session.

Now widely used throughout the ORD, the scenarios are considered a uniquely objective resource that at once adds focus and breadth to planning considerations. How is scenario planning improving the EPA and the ORD? "Basically, we think it helps us stay light on our feet," said George Allapas, Washington D.C.- based scientist/planner for the EPA's Office of Science Policy. "The technique - a kind of collective introspection - promotes mental flexibility, which leaves us more able to adapt to or, better yet, influence the external factors which affect our mission."

To most people environmental disasters and viral outbreaks are largely just fodder for motion pictures - but not at the EPA. The scenarios the EPA created offer the broad perspective necessary for dealing with the changing world around us. From toxic spills to major funding cuts, next month News for a Change concludes our two-part series on scenario planning with a look into the future through their eyes.

March '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
  • Print this page
  • Save this page

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this item

View comments
Add comments
Comments FAQ

ASQ News