In recent months I have been attempting to explore how other fields of study deal with change and strategically innovate. My purpose for this research is to identify the mindset and methodology combination that will provide an opportunity to create positive change in education. One approach that I came across is called scenario planning.
How Scenario Planning Works
by Ray Kurzweil
The future is inherently unknowable. Paradoxically, if we were to be told by an omniscient being what was going to happen a year from now based on our current beliefs and desires, that forecast would immediately become false as our plans would change. The future may be unknowable but it is not completely unknowable. We can forecast some aspects of the future with varying degrees of confidence. We can set aside some possible futures as unlikely and others as plausible and make contingency plans. We do this whenever we invest, buy insurance, or put on a safety belt. Unlike some other approaches to understanding the future, scenario planning does not pretend that we can predict the actual future. Instead it builds on existing knowledge to develop several plausible future scenarios. These can then be used to construct robust strategies–strategies that will play out well in several possible futures.
If we are to be able to test the robustness of strategies, we will need to ensure that each scenario differs substantially from the others. The goal should not be to make any one scenario completely plausible (though each should follow with strict logic from its assumptions about driving forces). The actual future is likely to contain elements of several scenarios. The scenarios may seem exaggerated because they take differing logics further than we might think plausible. (Though actual events have a way of upsetting our beliefs about plausibility.) But by constructing logical yet distinct scenarios of future worlds, we can more powerfully test the hypotheses implicit in existing and alternative strategies. A portfolio of distinct scenarios allows us to highlight major underlying forces that will form the future. Scenarios are not about successfully predicting particular events, but about making better decisions in the present, and knowing when to change strategy if events move onto a different track.
In brief, scenario planning involves just a few steps. It begins by identifying a specific issue or decision. This might be a narrow decision such as whether to increase marketing of a particular product, or it might be a broad strategic decision about the positioning of the company. In order to understand how decisions might play out, we need to identify the main driving forces already at work in the present. It is these forces, along with possible future events, which will shape the future. Driving forces of differing kinds must be considered. These will include technological driving forces (such as the growth in broadband access or the development of proteomics), economic forces (such as trends in international trade, the availability of skilled workers), social forces (demographics, value issues, lifestyle), and political issues (shifts in the political balance of power, new regulations, and anti-trust litigation).
Once the driving forces have been identified, we need to separate out the elements that we have good reason to believe unalterable, leaving us with the uncertain factors. These uncertain factors will be critically important when considering the focal issue. In each scenario plot, the driving forces, unchangeable elements, and uncertain factors play out in a logical manner. We will then find that some decisions appear to work in all of the futures we have envisioned. Those are the decisions that we can implement with confidence, knowing that they are robust. Others will work in only one or two possible futures. These decisions present difficult choices. We may hedge our bets, or proceed full force but now with a careful eye on early warning signals that tell us that we are heading into an alternate scenario. This last point makes it clear that scenarios are not only for choosing an initial decision. They also play a vital role in monitoring the continued fit of a decision or strategy with changing conditions. Having worked through the scenarios, we will have effectively rehearsed responses to critically changed conditions, and we will spot those changes more quickly.