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Scenario Planning the Future
Once an organization identifies the uncertainties and forces that act on it, it needs to consider how to monitor the unfolding of events. Microsoft used a cork board to track current events against scenario stories. The mass of evidence there demonstrated uncertainty as events unfolded along multiple vectors.
But again, just because something is uncertain does not mean it cannot be influenced. In fact, identification of uncertainty implies a watchful, often active engagement. In banking, regulation would be an uncertainty crucial to strategy. Banks do not sit around waiting to see what regulators will do. Naming an uncertainty means it should be monitored and engaged. Newly published regulations call for internal navigation, while regulatory debate in state and federal forums calls for lobbying. Scenarios help organizations imagine how various proposals will play out while keeping an eye on circumstances that converge on the best future and can determine which position to take. Further, scenarios deepen with time; feedback from engagement helps refine and even challenge assumptions as scenarios are employed.
Scenarios also help identify synergies between certain efforts. In the automobile industry, energy prices, consumer desires and government intervention are leading toward a confluence of more efficient vehicles, but some scenarios show a disconnect between the reality of energy, government direction and consumer desires. Thus, an automobile manufacturer may want to create a marketing program to present new designs that appeal to all constituencies with an emphasis on educating the consumer, for instance, on how cool and sporty an energy-efficient vehicle can be.
But a confluence of events isn’t the only way to learn from the future. The highest value for scenarios is a combination of action learning and anticipation. Scenarios help organizations practice and better prepare for the future, or parts of it, in case they become reality. Some companies place bets, complete with sealed envelopes in locked safes, in anticipation of an industry shift. Early warning signals prompt a dusting off of the plan — the offer to be put on the street — much to the scratching heads of less imaginative competitors. Months later, the sale of a business unit or a foray into a new market looks like genius. The genius lies in inquisitiveness; a desire to learn from forces that play against each other; the perseverance to monitor those forces once the strategic planning effort is over; and the courage to act on incomplete information, intuition and foresight rather than wait for the uncertain to become certain and the opportunity to be lost.
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