How do you prepare for the future which you didn’t see coming? From the global financial crisis to presidential elections, the Brexit referendum, and changes to both our technological and natural environment, our times are characterised by events which challenge previous expectations and norms.
COVID-19, in particular, has challenged institutions to radically and rapidly transform their ways of working. Ongoing social, economic, technological, and environmental trends add to the sense that the sector may well experience continued turbulence and uncertainty in months and years to come.
Predictive modelling falters under conditions of uncertainty, whether or not we are already aware of the factors which we can’t pin down – the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” made famous by Donald Rumsfeld. Turbulent times remind us that no-one can actually gather evidence from the future, and confident prediction is more about faith in a given model than true certainty as to what the future holds.
As Frankie Wilson of the Bodleian Libraries commented at the evidence-based practitioners’ conference EBLIP10 last year, sometimes strategy requires a judgment which is evidence-informed but not entirely beholden to what can be learned from the past. James McMicking of the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute articulated a similar notion when, presenting scenarios for the future of air travel, he reminded his audience that “We can manage by numbers but we can’t lead by them; the narrative matters.”
So how do we find new narratives when the future is unclear and uncertain? Harvard’s Peter Scoblic argues that when uncertainty precludes analogy to situations faced in the past, leaders can usefully develop their thinking by simulating possible future contexts to inform strategy. This is the basis of scenario planning: the foresight practice which involves imagining multiple plausible futures, and thinking them through in a disciplined way to give decision-makers a fresh perspective on their situation in the present.
Instructional fables for organizations: a short history of scenario planning
Scenario planning began in the early days of the Cold War with nuclear wargaming. Realising that the anticipated conflict was unprecedented, and strategies could not be developed with reference to previous military experience, think tanks like the Rand Corporation began devising imagined future contexts to sharpen strategic thinking and highlight the implications of commanders’ and policymakers’ choices. They adopted the term “scenario” from Hollywood, meaning the detailed outline of a proposed fictional movie.
Later, Pierre Wack and his colleagues at Shell led the way in developing scenarios for use in big business. One of their great successes came in the early 1970s, when Shell’s scenario work successfully prepared them for the consequences of the Yom Kippur War.
Shell had explored the future possibility of oil producers behaving like a cartel because they recognised it would dramatically change the sector they operated in. When the West supported Israel, angering oil-rich Arab states, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) put an embargo into effect.
Wack and his colleagues had neither predicted the war, nor the consortium’s actions, but they had been successfully rehearsing for a world in which the oil supply was throttled by producers. Shell was able to weather the subsequent volatility of the 1970s through judicious strategic decisions, informed by the scenario work, on matters affecting the reconfiguration, sale, or shutdown of their refineries and installations.
Wack’s work enriched the scenarios process by emphasising the contrast between foresight and predictive forecasting. Scenarios still focussed on empirical observation of signs indicating the potential for change – Wack memorably described scenarios work as being like observing rain on a mountain-top, and realising that this could mean floods in the valley below a few days from now – but a scenario’s value did not lie in whether it came to pass, rather whether it stretched decision-makers’ thinking.
Rather than attempt to identify the one future which will certainly happen, scenario planning empowers organisations to imagine a number of possible future contexts which can challenge and enrich strategic thinking. These contexts are chosen not for their predictive power, but their plausibility; a scenario’s value lies in whether thinking it through usefully informs a given strategic decision – as the OECD’s Joshua Polchar puts it, they are like “instructional fables”, which needn’t have taken place in reality for them to provide helpful learning.
How will we learn next? Scenario planning for the education sector
A project conducted with the University of Oslo on the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak explored the future of digitalisation in Norwegian schools, but its findings also have value for other parts of the education sector and other national contexts.
Built around the choices facing Norwegian headteachers in early 2020, the team created three visions of Norway in 2050 – far enough out that our social and economic relationships to digital technology might have shifted significantly. In one scenario, the schoolchildren of a climate-ravaged world largely educated themselves using digital self-directed learning. In another, the collapse of oil demand led currently-prosperous Norway into a rustbelt future dominated by right-wing populism.
In the third scenario, a heavily privatised and surveilled society faced disruption from parents who fought “the algorithm” over questions of their children’s health and wellbeing. This scenario, which initially seemed the most outlandish, proved within months to speak most directly to the challenges of 2020, as Norwegian parents formed Facebook groups to dispute the government’s COVID regulations on schooling. The scenario group had not previously considered that health would be a significant battleground between carers and schools when it came to future digitalisation of the education sector, yet within months issues of online learning, and whether students should be at home or on campus, lay at the heart of Norwegian education choices.
Previous scenario engagements with the higher education sector have highlighted both the benefits and challenges of the approach. Lang’s study of two scenario planning rounds at the Open University in the early 2000s found an increase in social capital as the scenario process prompted new and deeper connections between participants in wider discussions about the university’s future. However, institutionalising the approach on an ongoing basis – as has happened for corporations like Shell or government agencies in Singapore – proved more challenging.
Not every organization may achieve the level of scenario planning capacity and competency found at Shell or in the Singaporean government. However, even institutions without the appetite or resource to sustain a major or ongoing scenario process can still improve their capacity for foresight through methodical engagement with uncertainty. This is the equivalent of watching the football highlights on your smartphone, even if you don’t have the opportunity to visit the stadium or watch the whole match at home on a high-definition TV – you can still get the results, and a sense of what is going on!
The pandemic has accelerated or triggered numerous transformations whose full consequences are yet to become clear, while other, previously existing trends may now bend or break as a result of 2020’s crises. The pandemic response may, in turn, cause new uncertainties – from the long-term health of the economy to the immediate question of university admissions. Ramírez and Ravetz refer to such unstable situations, caused by our own interventions, as “feral futures“.
Under such circumstances, new strategic capabilities must be developed by universities – rigorous and disciplined approaches to uncertainty which allow us to make leadership decisions on bases other than the evidence and experience of a past which may never repeat.
Scenario planning offers one method to convene a community of forward-thinking practitioners and engage them in the serious discussion of our strategic blindspots, informing and enriching future decision-making for the post-pandemic university.
Matt Finch is Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland and a facilitator on the Scenarios Programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. He currently hosts episodes of the OECD’s Government After Shock podcast. His website is mechanicaldolphin.com.