An Organization To Learn
Sinking Of The Titanic
Rain, Sleet And New Quality Initiatives
To Deliver Excellence
Your Typical Oil Change
What A Concept
by Peter Block
On The Baldrige Winners
by Cathy Kramer
Business News Briefs
for a Change
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
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.