In times of exponential change, it is nearly impossible to be ready for any event. As a business owner, as much as an employee who needs their company to survive, we all need to be prepared. There is not such a thing as being ready 100%, but you can be more prepared.
Disciplines like Futures Design, Prospective and Scenario Planning help to clarify the vision of multiple futures and increase your degree of readiness. They explore the key aspects that impact on your business, the trends and the indicators that they are going in a particular direction. With that initial analysis, they paint different scenarios presenting their particular set of challenges. Thinking of strategies to address those challenges will give you a roadmap to action in case that scenario becomes a reality.
A little research will show a complex body of work, processes and techniques that can feel overwhelming. This article intends to give you the very basics to run your very own Futures Design workshop. Once you are familiar with the process (it is easier than you think), you may want to dive deep into the world of Scenario Planning, Foresight, Prospective and other exotic names for similar processes. Scenario Planning is the particular flavor of Futures Design you will learn here. But you can gain some insights and understanding from practising first.
What is the Future?
There are infinite possible futures, many plausible, some probable and a few preferable. The only certain thing is that one of those futures will be a reality.
In the futures cone by Voros you see that, in the present moment, there is one reality taking place, while infinite futures are possible. It is only when time passes that one of them become the reality. You can draw a linear picture of the past, because you know what happened. Projections fail because they estimate the future based on the past trajectory.
In the universe of infinite possible futures, you find a set of bizarre possibilities, more plausible ones, some with more probabilities than others. There are more preferable futures, and if you go idealistic, then there are utopian futures. If you go on the very negative, undesirable futures, you find the dystopian futures.
Why do you need to design the future?
At the beginning of 2020, I was handing out the report on a prospective (or speculative) future exercise about our industry I had facilitated. I designed the workshops based on the Scenario Planning descriptions by Stadlers (2015) and Wade (2014), and added my playful touch with Dixit cards for scenario design, and LEGO models for challenge identification.
This type of exercise is a mix of observation of trends, design, and future-casting. It requires identifying the major drivers of the changes in the industry you are looking at. Next it is necessary to analyse the directions they can move to (positive and negative). Then, drawing a matrix of impact and uncertainty, with all the drivers. Those with the most impact and uncertainty levels are selected to create possible scenarios combining them all.
Each scenario will pose a different set of challenges. If you get ready (or design a strategy) for those challenges in as many scenarios as possible, you will be more ready for them. That is, if you include some not so plausible scenarios in the equation.
I had invited participants to think of impactful yet uncertain events. The original exercise aimed at 2030 as the timeline. Since it was an experimental process, we focused on shorter term scenarios, and the most likely (plausible) ones, to gain some practical insights. Then, a global pandemic hit, and made the whole exercise futile… or maybe not -we did consider an economic crisis, though.
Our global society is changing at an increasing speed in complexity and uncertainty, what is commonly called the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment.
The crisis accelerated changes like digital transformation across the globe. And individuals and businesses adapted to the ‘new reality’.
To me, these events have emphasised the need for a more adventurous design of scenarios (at least one of them) when doing prospective future design, but also, it means that VUCA got even more volatile, and this is the new reality. Jamais Cascio coined the term BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, and Incomprehensible) as a new framework to replace VUCA:
BANI — Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, and Incomprehensible — is a framework to articulate the increasingly commonplace situations in which simple volatility or complexity are insufficient lenses through which to understand what’s taking place. Situations in which conditions aren’t simply unstable, they’re chaotic. In which outcomes aren’t simply hard to foresee, they’re completely unpredictable.
In order to deal with exponential change, you can’t base all your decisions in what you know. There has been a breaking point and you may need to bring together all your resilience, soft skills and creativity to adapt to the new world.
Seven steps to design the future with scenario planning?
Here is my distillation of Wade’s Scenario Planning with influence of Stadlers’s material. The basic steps are:
- CONTEXT – Introduce the session motivation, context and goal
- DRIVERS – Identify business-relevant Drivers
- DIRECTIONS – Identify the two future directions of these drivers (+ and -)
- UNCERTAINTIES – Identify drivers with high impact and uncertainty (Critical Uncertainties)
- SCENARIOS – Compose 4 possible scenarios with the two most critical drivers.
- CHALLENGES – Identify key challenges for each scenario
- STRATEGIES – Identify possible strategies for each challenge
Ideally, you would compose a team with 8-10 participants with different expertise, from technical to business. A first workshop can be run in four blocks of 90’.
- 1 session of workshop approach and identification of drivers
- 2 sessions to identify early indicators and select critical drivers
- 1 session for the development of 2 scenarios and the challenges of different stakeholders
You should follow-up the workshop with regular checkings: monitor the early indicators of each driver, because it indicates that the scenario is getting closer to reality (e.g. from possible to probable).
Step 1 – How to introduce the context and goal
The first step is to decide on a specific goal. You may have some motivation: Maybe you have been in business for a while, and new players are threatening to take away some of your customer base. Is that a trend that will fade or will become stronger? You need to address both possibilities. That would be one key point to communicate.
But, to make the most of the time of the participants, it would be useful to carry out some prospective work beforehand. This would provide people with some extra background information, what are the trends and most relevant drivers of the industry. However, if you have assembled a team with a variety of knowledge, they may be able to share it with the rest to have a rough context.
In this stage, it is also useful to introduce people to the process -definition of futures, methodology, content and structure of the sessions-.
Step 2 – How to identify business-relevant Drivers
Each industry is affected by different drivers. For example, a travel agency may be impacted directly by the economy, whereas the world of Internet of Things may not be as relevant (as for today).
The first task of the team is to come up with different drivers for your industry. That is, any driver.
TASK 1: LIST
- Setup: give people a pack of sticky notes and a permanent black marker
- Duration: 2’
- Instruction: “Write down in sticky notes any drivers that may impact your industry, one driver per sticky note”
- Description: people should be writing down the drivers and putting them up on the wall.
TASK 2: ORGANISATION
- Duration: 1’
- Instruction: “Group the sticky notes that describe the same driver -even if with a different name”
- Description: after people have organised the drivers, the facilitator can take one of each and make the final list in another area, separated as if in columns. If there are too many, you can run a voting round to limit them to a manageable number (6-8).
Step 3 – How to identify the future directions of the drivers
TASK 3: DIRECTIONS
- Setup: draw a vertical line with tape under each driver. Make a mark in the middle.
- Duration: 10’
- Instruction: “We are doing this together”, for each driver: “What is the end result if driver XX grows and if it loses steam?”
- Description: if the driver grows in power, that may result on ZZ dominating the space, whereas, if it loses steam, a potential threat (or a promising advance) just disappears. The facilitator will write both results on sticky notes and will put the positive on top of the driver’s vertical line, and the negative at the bottom.
TASK 4: EARLY INDICATORS
- Duration: 2’ per driver (10-15’)
- Instruction: “What would be the events that get us closer to each direction? For example, if a Bigtech is coming to your industry to dominate it, the first event or indicator could be that they buy a company of your industry.”
- Description: This would be conventional brainstorming, with the facilitator taking note. It is better to work with one direction at a time. The outcome is a set of drivers to track periodically, and a series of events to look for as early indicators that the result of that driver is approaching. It is convenient to record this for future reference (I normally take pictures).
Step 4 – How to identify drivers with high impact and uncertainty or Critical Uncertainties
TASK 5: UNCERTAINTY MATRIX
- Setup: Draw on a panel an L shape, with Impact on the left (- at the bottom and + on top), and Uncertainty at the bottom (- on the left, + on the right).
- Duration: 5’-10’
- Instruction: “Place the drivers in the matrix, according to the degree of impact in your business and uncertainty about their realisation”.
- Description: they will do this as a group, with two or three placing the drivers on the matrix, but then devoting some time to clarify any disagreement in the criteria. After they are done, the focus should be the top-right part of the matrix: the drivers with most impact and higher level of uncertainty.
The rationale behind this is: if it does not impact you, don´t worry, if it is impactful but certain… then plan accordingly – you know it is coming, but you don’t need this exercise for it. Now, if it impacts you but is uncertain… you really want to explore it.
If there are more than three or four, you may want to run a voting round to pick the top 2 (three at most) to move through the exercise.
Step 5 – How to compose possible scenarios with the most critical drivers.
You bring two drivers, with both their positive-negative directions (towards more or less) which generate 4 scenarios.
Three driver’s directions would generate 8 scenarios. For an initial exercise with limited time, you may choose to focus on the 2 most relevant or with the greatest impact as you voted before. You can explore the rest in follow up sessions.
Now, the way I suggest you compose the scenarios is using Dixit cards for inspiration. I have used the game Dixit for a variety of things, and scenario planning is one of them.
TASK 6: VISUAL SCENARIO
- Setup: split the group in teams and provide each team with a set of Dixit cards (at least 20), an Scenario template (an A3 sheet as in the image below), sticky notes and permanent black markers. Prepare the sheets with the chosen drivers directions in the Drivers box: that is the scenario we are planning for.
- Duration: 10’-15’
- Instructions: “You have a choice of images to pick from. Think of the driver-direction and pick a couple of images that resonate with it.”
- Description: People will select a visual representation that matches the driver. Depending on time, and the number of drivers, they can work together, one by one, or divide the work.
TASK 7: SCENARIO DESCRIPTION
- Duration: 10’-15’
- Instructions: “Explain the scenario using the images as a metaphor”
- Description: People will have to improvise a verbal explanation, using the images as a prompt. That way they will shape the scenario in a storytelling form. After explaining it to the group, they should summarise it on a sticky note.
Step 6 – How to identify key challenges for each scenario in futures design
Having listened to the scenario description, everyone will have a more specfic idea of the scenario. Enough to put themselves into it, with a particular role: clients, employees, or any other stakeholder.
In this step, participants will try to think as the stakeholders and spot the main challenges they would face in the particular scenario.
TASK 8 – A DAY IN THE LIFE
- Setup: each team of participants will receive a bunch of LEGOs (no more than 50 pieces per person is needed, maybe less), a template for challenges as in the image below, sticky notes and a permanent black marker.
- Duration: 15’
- Instruction: “Build a model of a day in the life of stakeholder XX in the scenario YY”
- Description: It is best to build a model individually, thus, participants can work in parallel, and divide the work. If there are not enough role-scenarios for each, team members can work on the same, then share them and build a common one to share with the group.
TASK 9 – CHALLENGES
- Duration: 10’
- Instruction: “You need to write as many challenges as possible for a particular stakeholder in a particular scenario, and then you will move to the next one”
- Description: A team or participant -depending on numbers- will focus on a stakeholder-scenario at a time. They will have about 1-2’ to brainstorm the challenges they think they will face. Then they will move onto the next stakeholder-scenario, and so on. If you run three rounds, each stakeholder-scenario will have a variety of challenges.
TASK 10 – PRIORITISE
- Setup: place the challenges in the wall and give voting dots to participants (one per stakeholder-scenario)
- Duration: 3’
- Instruction: “You need to vote for the most relevant challenges”
- Description: Participants will have to vote for the most relevant challenges, which will provide a priority list.
Step 7 – How to identify possible strategies for each challenge of each scenario?
This is the final stage of the scenario planning exercise. By now, people are familiar with the context, drivers, scenarios and the specific challenges or particular stakeholders. It is solution time.
You can use a table like below to organise the solutions.
TASK 11 – STRATEGIES
- Setup: sticky notes and permanent black markers
- Duration: 10’
- Instructions: “How might we prepare for challenge XX?”
- Description: Participants will solve one particular challenge at a time. Depending on time, they can work in teams or individually. You run a first brainwriting sprint for 1-2’, then everybody move to the next challenge. Rinse and repeat a few times. You may want to organise and prioritise the strategies, or leave them all for later. In any case, you will end up with a set of strategies to respond to the challenges.
- Will my business be future proof after scenario planning?
Nobody can predict the future, but the exercise can give you some indicators to monitor, and some challenges to be prepared for. Ideally, you keep observing, and updating the exercise periodically.
If you keep track of the early indicators, you can start applying the strategies you already thought of to solve the challenges posed by that scenario. It will always be better than see it coming and doing nothing.
Should you design the future alone or in a team?
Ideally, you would gather a multidisciplinary team, both in terms of knowledge domain -tech, business, etc.- and thinking styles -imaginative, analytical, optimistic, pessimistic, and so on. In the scenario design phase you need people who can explain the context, as well as people who can think outside the box, imagining worlds that are not yet here.
In the phase where you choose the key drivers, the collective knowledge would be most powerful. The same way that, to choose the key challenges, people with a strategic vision may contribute more.
Then again, other people may be invited to generate ideas to solve the selected challenges…
If you are forced to work alone, you may need to use techniques like De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats to analyse each scenario with a different focus.
How long does it take?
The scenario planning and challenge identification can be done in one day (6 effective hours). You can break it down in two days, three hours each, or, as I have, in 4 sessions of 90’. However, it is best to go with either format in a very short span. I believe it is most effective to do it in one or two days.
This part should be followed up with an ideation workshop 3-6 hours, to find solutions to the most critical challenges in the different scenarios. If doing parallel team storming sessions, you can cut down the time, as long as you have enough participants.
Ideally, a team of 4-6 people can generate several ideas within 15’ of team storming dedicated to a unique challenge. If you have 4 scenarios and 3 top challenges in each, that could take 4-6 hours (including breaks… 12 ideation sprints may be really taxing). Divide by 2 if you have double the people…
Where do I learn more about Futures Design or Scenario Planning?
Here your have my top 5 resources in complexity order, feel free to explore them in any other sequence:
- Strategy 101 – Scenario Planning (Christian Stadler) – This is one of the first videos I watched to learn how to do scenario planning. In less than 10’ it gave me an overview of the general process. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAkCUTgUi7I
- Woody Wade: “Scenario Planning” – Thinking Differently about Future Innovation – This video was the main source for the workshop design you have read about here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKhUKHzE8hk
- Woody Wade “See Your New Normal” (free ebook) – Wade explain forecasting with a 1-2 year horizon due to covid instead of 8-10 years. https://www.woodywade.com/ebooks/see-your-new-normal
- Actionable Futures Toolkit – A toolkit created by designers (you get to download the session canvases), explained in their web. I found it after I had run my workshop, and did a test on remote with it. My recommendation is that you gain some confidence with a simple workshop and then ‘graduate’ to something like this. Of course, if you are an experienced facilitator, you may be already familiar with some of the techniques, and it will be easier for you. https://futures.nordkapp.fi/
- Future life (Spanish) – This is a professional toolkit to design and facilitate workshops. It includes a variety of techniques and resources for you to choose from and create ad-hoc workshops, and spice them up if you repeat with the same group. It builds on Element 4, a Design Thinking toolkit, that can be used in combination with this for the ideation part (solving the problems you may envision). Only in Spanish at the moment. https://element4.es/futuro/