The future is ‘terra incognita’: although we may be able to guess the outcome of events that lie close to us, as we project beyond this we enter an unmapped zone full of uncertainty. Paradoxically, the range of options this reveals can seem paralysing.
No one can definitively map the future, but we can explore the possibilities in ways that are specifically intended to support decision-making. At Shell we use scenario building to help us wrestle with the developments and behaviours that shape what the future may hold and prepare ourselves more effectively. We also believe it can inspire individuals and organisations to play a more active role in shaping a better future - for themselves, or even on a global scale…
In this book, we use a metaphor of exploration and map-making to describe how we think about building scenarios. Like a set of maps describing different aspects of a landscape, scenarios provide us with a range of perspectives on what might happen, helping us to navigate more successfully. Exploration - of a territory or the future - involves both analytical thinking rooted in whatever facts are clear, and also informed intuition.
Scenarios are a powerful tool in the strategist’s armory. They are particularly useful in developing strategies to navigate the kinds of extreme events we have recently seen in the world economy. Scenarios enable the strategist to steer a course between the false certainty of a single forecast and the confused paralysis that often strike in troubled times. When well executed, scenarios boast a range of advantages—but they can also set traps for the unwary.
Scenarios protect against ‘groupthink’
Often, the power structure within companies inhibits the free flow of debate. People in meetings typically agree with whatever the most senior person in the room says. In particularly hierarchical companies, employees will wait for the most senior executive to state an opinion before venturing their own—which then magically mirrors that of the senior person. Scenarios allow companies to break out of this trap by providing a political “safe haven” for contrarian thinking.
Scenarios allow people to challenge conventional wisdom
In large corporations, there is typically a very strong status quo bias. After all, large sums of money, and many senior executives’ careers, have been invested in the core assumptions underpinning the current strategy—which means that challenging these assumptions can be difficult. Scenarios provide a less threatening way to lay out alternative futures in which the these assumptions underpinning today’s strategy may no longer be true.
Last monday, July 6th, the UK-based National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) organised RebootBritain, a public event where social entrepreneurs, activists, policy-makers and social thinkers had a chance to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing Britain today. As part of this discussion, organisers invited participants to make their own idea of what would help to reboot Britain … in Lego blocks.
Why? The idea is that building with the hands prompts different ways of thinking … ideas emerge … the process gives a voice to the regular delegates at this grand event with big-name speakers … and everyone is drawn to view each others’ interesting, clever, pretty models.