This post is largely inspired by a comprehensive blog entry by Dave Snowden on a new approach to Scenario Planning. Much of what he says is key to the thinking behind our new Thrive! product.
Seneca said: “The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty”
In one of her articles Margaret Wheatly writes about the metaphors we use when speaking about dealing with complex problems, most of these relate to attacking the problem, not actually engaging with it. Most people and organisation seem to have an inherent dislike for complexity and uncertainty, wanting to eliminate or reduce it all costs. In their efforts, they often cause more risk to their companies. …
One of the key techniques for reducing uncertainty is scenario planning. It seems this process forms part of virtually every organisation’s strategic planning process, although I see little evidence that it managed to prepare organisations for the current economic crisis. We’ve never been fans of the process, although it has value. Mostly, we’ve seen very few instances where it’s actually informed strategy, and we’ve also seen very few instances of where the process led to unexpected outcomes.
To quote Dave: So used well Scenario provides a means to imagine different alternatives and enthrall people in a new way of thinking about the world, either by way of an aspirational goal or a to be avoided at all costs negative future. Used badly it is an attempt to reduce uncertainty in the future by mapping out a range of future possibilities. Now this may seem a contradictory or at best a paradoxical statement, surely we want to reduce uncertainty? Well yes we do, but only if it is genuinely possible to do so. If it is not then we are in fact increasing risk; better to embrace the uncertainty and learn to live in the present in knowledge of that uncertainty. We can reduce risk, and we can increase our state of anticipatory awareness, which is preferable to inauthentic attempts at anticipation. We need to think about resilience and rapid reaction rather than RRRRR. This I think is the essence of the Seneca quote.”
One of the key tenets of Thrive! is that leaders should leverage distributed cognition (well described by Dave in the post) to increase the diversity of views in their strategic planning processes. Leaders tend to surround themselves with people who think just like them (which is a key limiting factor for Scenario planning exercises) – by allowing larger populations to provide input into planning processes; we increase the robustness of the process.
“One of the key things to realise is that the above approach moves us from attempting to anticipate or predict future events (which as Seneca says is a waste of time) to creating a sensor network that encompasses the organisation and its environment. As such we move from anticipation, to a state of anticipatory awareness. We move from planning for scenarios, to true scenario planning.”
A popular saying is that the only things we can be sure of is death and taxes – I think in current times we can add uncertainty to that list. The world around us has changed significantly over the last 6 months, and I doubt that we’ve seen the end of the shaking. Leaders need to learn to engage with uncertainty instead of attempting to eliminate it or reduce it at all costs. As stated in an earlier post, leaders need to adopt a gardening mindset – we can plan a garden to look a certain way, do all the right things, but the nature of creating an ecology is such that we know that we need to remain aware and anticipate change (anticipatory awareness). Some plants will flourish, others won’t. New pests may arrive unexpectedly, a sudden hailstorm may wreak havoc, or a seed that was sown accidentally may prove to be the biggest asset to the garden – you never know … but somehow it’s ok.