In my experience, organizations engage in scenario work in three different ways.
Sometimes, scenarios can be helpful as a “jolt” – a one-off , one-time experience that is designed to provoke and shift the thinking of the session participants. People are engaged for a day (or a few hours), and that’s it. Good, interesting session. “Made me think”, and then it’s often back to business.
Scenarios are also used in “projects” – as a technique to help address a particular time-bound challenge, like rethinking an existing strategy to deal with a changing and unfamiliar situation. Here, people are usually engaged two or three times over the life of the project – usually two or three months. The work gets done, new insights are created, and change (hopefully) gets implemented.
I think that organizations that use scenarios most successfully do so as part of a “program” – where scenario thinking is used regularly over time to help shed light on a range of strategic issues. Organizations like Shell, UPS and Morgan Stanley have all used scenarios in this way over many years.
This is not an easy thing to do. There is a tendency to put a lot of energy into a single scenario session or project. Once that is over, attention often moves away to the next event, or back to the regular cycles of work. In many organizations, not enough thought is given to the ongoing value of the scenarios and their insights.
So here are four areas to focus on to “embed” scenario work in your organization:
Conversation – scenarios can be used to track shifts in the environment, providing a strong, regular platform for scanning and strategic conversations about how the world outside is changing, and how the organization plans to deal with this
Communication – scenarios can be a powerful backdrop to deliver important messages or engage other groups in a conversation about the future. Use scenarios as a way to share your thinking with colleagues, associates and collaborators
Choices – scenarios can be an important input to strategy discussions They can help test strategic choices or future plans. Encourage your colleagues to ask questions like: “Will our proposed approach work, given the different ways we can imagine the future playing out?”
Capability-building – this is not just about developing your own skills as a provider and facilitator of scenario planning work. It is equally important to develop the capacity of your colleagues and associates to be “smart consumers” of scenarios.