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Scenarios As Learning

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

One of the first questions people ask me is how accurate I was in forecasting the future, but it’s not the right question. First of all, I am not really a professional forecaster; I just play one in the classroom! But more importantly, who cares? Was I surprised by the fall of the Soviet Union? Yes. Was I surprised by the rise of the Internet? No. But again, who cares? If I were picking horses in the race or stocks in the market, then people might have a legitimate interest in how accurate I was. But statements made 20 years go?

The real issue is that foresight is not fundamentally about the future. We don’t make 20-year forecasts, and then wait for 20 years to see if they come true. Foresight is about dealing with change, and the only place we can do that, the only place we can do anything, is in the present. Forecasting (and visioning for that matter) is designed to increase our awareness of and readiness to accept change. That is hard because most of us do not like to trade the known for the unknown, the familiar for the unfamiliar, the present for the future. We are doing OK in the present; why gamble on an unknown future? Even only a few futures students would travel into the future permanently. The present is not that great, but it’s what we know. It’s our home.

So what is the purpose of forecasting if it is not to predict the future. Arie de Geus, one of the scenarists with Shell many years ago, said, “Learning faster is the only sustainable advantage in an environment of rapid innovation and change.” It’s not about getting the future ‘right’. It’s about recognizing change when it occurs and being ready to respond to it at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. Eric Hoffer put it this way, “In times of change learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Learners are still learning; the learned stopped learning some time ago.

Angela Wilkinson, also a Shell veteran and now with the OECD, made the following observation based on her time at Shell.

The most common question about Shell's scenario practice is "Did it work?" That is, did it create direct business value by enabling better decisions? The answer is "yes" in the case of more-focused scenarios and "only indirectly" in the case of global scenarios. We have no solid examples of Shell's having anticipated future developments better than other companies—the mythology around anticipation of the 1970s oil crises notwithstanding. The historian Keetie Sluyterman characterizes Shell as being perhaps faster than other companies in catching on to changes in market or culture, by virtue of its sensitivity to emerging topics such as climate change, the rise of China, and the controversial boom in the development of extensive unconventional gas resources in the United States.
(Wilkinson, A. & Kupers, R., “Living in the Futures,” Harvard Business Review, May 2013, 119-127.)

Scenarios are not predictions. Rather they are opportunities to practice living in a different world, much like the football team will practice against their teammates playing like their next opponents. Airline pilots, astronauts, first responders all practice with scenarios. It is like physical conditioning. Jogging is not transportation; you don’t get anywhere. In fact, you end up right where you started, but you are in better shape. We don’t make scenarios to hedge our bets about the future in hopes that one of them might turn out to be correct. If one is correct, all the better. But even if none are correct, it is still worth the effort because we are better prepared to recognize and respond to the change that does occur. Foresight is about learning in the present. It’s about being ready to release our white-knuckled grip on the present and move into the future when the time is right.

We should be teaching our children and young adults this skill before they are old adults!


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