In times of high anxiety and great uncertainty, organizations and their leaders turn to scenario thinking to expand their sense of what could happen and what they should do. They try to create their Plan B or maybe C in case the future unfolds in ways they didn’t expect.
This objective misses the real power in scenario thinking—anticipating the future with enough clarity and shared purpose that your Plan A moves you into action. Scenarios can generate profound insights that help us confront how we think and feel about our future.
I’ve seen how this works many times using a simple archetypal approach in creating scenarios with associations. This methodology weaves a set of significant drivers of change into future images or narratives. Whether I craft the scenarios through careful listening and research, or co-create them with association leaders in scenario workshops, I find people come to similar insights:
The expected future could easily be called the “official future” because it exposes how strongly people believe they will make steady progress and acquire improved capabilities to confront any challenges ahead. By staying the course, they preserve their organization’s sense of identity, culture and values. To see the results of expected future thinking, look at most strategic plans.
The feared future doesn’t have to be as frightening as someone’s worst nightmare to illustrate where failing to act can lead. Exposing leaders to a future of disruptive changes and existential threats to their values and culture is enough to inspire most people to gather the courage to intervene in a future they don’t want.
The preferred future often feels like the least plausible scenario because it demands so much of organizations and people to achieve it. Innovative breakthroughs and enhanced potential do not happen without great effort. And leaders have a difficult time believing we could have systems and institutions that honor and include diverse interests and priorities. Preferred future scenarios are the most challenging because we lack enough vision, imagination and faith in one another to believe they are possible.
The right question to judge the usefulness of scenarios is not whether any scenario accurately forecasts the future—or even whether they lead to viable strategy and plans. Scenarios only have to get close enough to the truth about how we see our future to give us the clarity to act collectively in incredible ways to pursue our best vision of the future.
Reminder: Join us August 12 at 2 pm at the ASAE Annual Meeting for Images of the 2029 Association: Co-creating Insights into Alternative Futures.