Every organisation needs to imagine what the future will be like and plan both for the good times ahead and the bad. As we are buffeted by changes in technology, customer behaviour and expectations, and by black swan events such as Covid 19 or a war in Ukraine it becomes vital that we plan for next week, next year and for 20 years ahead.
There is a whole industry that has grown up around trend spotting, forecasting, scenario planning and future thinking. In this article I want to explore some of the differences between these techniques and look at World Building as a powerful additional tool. By the end you should have several tools that you can apply to your own setting.
Exploring the future is also a vital skill for organisations going through transformation and there are opportunities to engage your whole team in imagining possible futures and creating a culture that allows these futures to emerge. We’ll look more at these ideas in a later article.
Predicting, forecasting and trend spotting
There are a variety of futures we can imagine (based on the 4Ps):
- the possible – what the future might be like?
- the plausible – what the future could be like?
- the probable – the future if we carry on as now?
- the preferred – the future we want?
Predicting the future is a risky business and involves speculating about what will happen. It is not data or evidence based and if it worked reliably we would all be able to gamble with confidence. It revolves around possible futures and what might happen (such as picking winning lottery numbers) rather than what is likely to happen.
Forecasting is based on data and extrapolates from the current situation towards probable futures that are likely to happen. It tends to work well over short time horizons and every business will be familiar with setting expectations for sales next month or next year based on current sales trends and knowledge about markets, customers and experience from the past.
Trend spotting (what’s happening now) asks us simply to identify what is likely to affect us in the future and it provides clues to forces that we should take into account in our forward planning. Current trends include plant based food, crypto currency, the Metaverse, the great resignation (rethinking the value of working), sustainability (in the light of the climate emergency) and many more.
We can get lists of trends every year from all the major consultancies, watch what is being discussed in social media and observe some of them flourish into important drivers of change while others disappear quickly as consumers and journalists move on to the new new thing. The key for every business is to evaluate them for themselves, to ask “what if this becomes important?” and to factor them into their own thinking.
This is a more serious attempt to imagine big changes up ahead and usually takes more effort (2-3 days from a team) while considering a longer (10-30 year) timeframe. The trick is to explore possible futures (around high impact drivers of change) and then consider how you might respond if they occurred.
Scenario planning generates multiple possible futures some of which we will prefer and others we will want to avoid. By being aware that different futures are up ahead we may be able to take action to avert the negative and nudge us towards the preferred.
Scenario planning was developed by the military and became a useful tool for business in companies such as Shell where Peter Schwartz (The Art of the Long View) ran multiple workshops with senior staff and documented a process that is still in use today.
- Define the problem or focus area around which your scenarios are going to be developed? You’ll need to get a team involved representing different parts of your business. This is expensive but it is essential you bring in multiple viewpoints.
- List the external drivers of change that might affect the problem being explored. Focus on the external as these are not under your control. Our scenarios will help us consider our responses to these external forces. External drivers will include things that are already known (such as impacts of an emerging technology) and more uncertain changes (such as war that closes a supply route) that may or may not occur.
- Consider the likelihood of each driver happening and the impact on your problem or business. You can plot them on a chart (certainty/impact). The discussion at this point will connect your business to a wide range of forces of change and is worthwhile in its own right.
- Select (or vote upon) the two forces that have the highest impact and which are the most uncertain. These are called your “critical uncertainties” and by choosing these we make ourselves consider scary futures and highly valuable opportunities.
- Create a scenario matrix with your two critical uncertainties on the axes. Label both ends of the axes with polarised versions of your uncertainties; full employment/low employment versus green energy/fossil fuels. You now have four quadrants and these will become the starting points for developing your scenarios. Try to name each of them. Make sure they are distinct from each other. Our goal is to tell 4 compelling stories that each help us imagine and respond to a possible future.
- Use world building to visualise and bring depth to each scenario
- Consider how you will monitor what really happens in the the future and what actions you would take to embrace or mitigate each of these scenarios
A slightly easier approach
This has been adapted from the work of futurologist Jamais Cascio. It reduces the focus on discussing all of the possible forces and allows more focus on the scenarios themselves.
- Define your focus area
- Use an existing set of drivers that have been produced by an organisation such as the World Economic Forum
- Select 4 or 5 high impact forces. We can consider more because we are not going to pit them against each other.
- Create your scenarios using these forces and the following matrix
- The future is what I expect.
- The future is better than I expect.
- The future is worse than I expect.
- The future is weirder than I expect.
- Use world building to visualise each scenario
- Monitor and respond
This simpler version will produce different scenarios that focus less on specific trends or forces but the benefits will be similar as the group discusses both the forces and the interplay between them.
Using world building to bring scenarios to life
World building offers scenario planners the opportunity to visualise each of the futures and demonstrate the changes from the existing situation.
Here is a shortened version of our world building questions as starting points.
1. Where are we and who is here?
- Choose a location to tell your story and people it with customers, non-customers, staff or robots; perhaps your headquarters, a retailer, distribution centre, someone’s home or place of work.
- Draw a map to show the location and what is nearby
- Find or draw pictures of your location (a mood board)
2. What is abundant or scarce in this scenario and what is valued?
- This will help you imagine what has changed and how that affects your business, your customers and your employees. Think about the role of technology.
- Find images for what is abundant and scarce
- Write an advert for a key piece of technology in your scenario?
3. How are life, work, play and business organised?
- What does a “day in the life” feel like? What do people do? How do they relax?
- Create a calendar for one or more of your inhabitants to show their day
4. What is driving changes in behaviour?
- Take a longer view of what is changing behaviour. This could be new laws, regulations, rules or constraints. It could also be patterns informed by religion, community norms, new myths and new beliefs.
- What is the one big change that you need to alert to your decision makers?
There is lots to discuss here and choices you make answering one question will affect the answers for others. Think about these connections and what they mean.
You may want to build worlds for each of your scenarios separately but it is perhaps more usual to create contrasts between worlds by keeping the setting or context the same.