Thinking Seriously About How Things Change

In a situation like the one we find ourselves currently in, there’s bound to be a lot of speculation.

Whether you’re now quarantined at home or still going in to your workplace, the chances are that you’re scrolling your digital device for the latest updates and information.

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Among all the other information you’ll have to sift, there will be articles, columns, and features asking whether the pandemic will permanently transform our way of life. Slate suggests that “thanks to the coronavirus, the future may arrive earlier than expected“; the Guardian warns that “life may never be ‘normal’ again“; New York magazine is already certain that “we can’t go back to the way things used to be“.

On Twitter today, I watched a thread of futurists roll by, “brainstorming about medium-long term scenarios” of COVID-19, offering what boiled down to a series of “what-if” questions.

But this is where I think we have to be more disciplined about how we approach the future.

One of the joys of looking at what comes next is that no-one knows for sure. The best efforts of the human race across history have failed to give us either crystal balls or time machines. Evidence, by definition, cannot be gathered from events which haven’t happened yet, so any predictive model involves a degree of faith that the future will be like the past in certain respects.

As a result, there’s a danger that we mistake the future for either a projected dot on a graph, or an intuition shaped by our hopes and fears. In fact, it’s a place we’re going to have to live, as rich and complex and contradictory as the present, and it’s totally inaccessible to us, right up until it arrives.

The word “scenarios” gets bandied around a lot in these circumstances, by people who really mean either “contingencies” or “speculations”. But scenarios aren’t daydreams, dystopias, projected data points, or simple “what ifs”.

Scenarios are methodically constructed by a group of stakeholders to locate the futures which lie outside of current assumptions. They’re not predictions and don’t expect to successfully locate the one future which will actually come to pass. A good scenario can be wild and unlikely, as long as it helps you to notice something you had previously ignored about what lies ahead.

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Scenarios have to be plausible – meaning that they challenge assumptions but are useful to inform decision-making. That means that, while they may incorporate some wild or unexpected circumstances, you’re not likely to spend much time scenario planning for the rise of Atlantis or the arrival of flying saucers from the great beyond.

Scenarios, as used on the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach at the Saïd Business School, actually have a pretty tight definition:

A small set
of manufactured possible future contexts
of something
for someone
for a purpose
with a pre-specified usable interface
and used.

This means:

  • we construct possible futures for a specific context, user, and purpose;
  • we only construct enough futures to usefully inform decision-making;
  • we attend, in advance, to how the user will receive and incorporate the scenarios into their work;
  • and the scenario engagement is only truly successful if the scenarios are used – that is to say, if they inform the decision which needs to be made.

This is why a lot of a scenario planner’s work happens in advance of the event at which possible future contexts will be created and discussed – because it is vitally important to define and understand the decision which the scenarios are meant to inform, and the context in which this decision will be made.

It is also why scenario planners must work hard in the latter stages of the process, once the future contexts have been created: the future stories and visions must inform the present-day decision which needs to be made.

As the great scenario planner Pierre Wack noted, in his work, articulating the scenarios – the future visions or stories themselves – was a small proportion of the time spent with executives. Once the scenarios had been presented to leaders, the rest of the time focussed on understanding and exploring the factors. The stories of the future themselves can be discarded once they have opened users’ eyes to the issues which lay outside of their previous framing.

So, as the pandemic sweeps the globe and you start to ponder what happens next – for you, your community, your organisation, your nation, the whole global order – don’t get too caught up in speculation and punditry; and certainly don’t mistake them for useful scenarios.

If you find yourself in quarantine, eager to think about what comes next, you could take pen and paper and begin to think about your strategic blindspots through a “back of the napkin” activity like Arrows of Time.

You could read some of the serious scenario planning literature or read an interview with an accomplished scenario practitioner.

Or you could get in touch for a chat.

 

Strategy and Impact Workshops at State Library of New South Wales

Following a successful engagement last year at the State Library of New South Wales, I’ll be returning to Sydney with colleague Brendan Fitzgerald for two workshops in early May.

In our “Library Leaders Workshop Day” on May 4, Brendan & I will help senior library staff to explore a range of strategic tools and techniques. These will help teams think about changing wants and needs in their communities, building the capability to respond with creative local strategies.

Then, on May 5, we will explore ways of defining, measuring, and sharing the difference that public libraries make to their communities, in “Next-generation Measures and Metrics for Public Libraries“.

Join us for one or both of these sessions in May – we’re looking forward to seeing you.

Webinar: Intro to Scenario Planning for Information Professionals

On 18th March, at 12.30pm Greenwich Mean Time, you can join me for a webinar organised by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals.

We’ll be talking about scenario planning and foresight techniques which participants can employ in their organisations:

How can we prepare for an uncertain future? What part does good foresight play in resilience, organisational effectiveness, and community cohesion? If we can’t gather evidence from events which haven’t happened yet, and we don’t have a crystal ball to foretell what comes next, how can we complement evidence-based practice with sound strategic judgement?

This lively participatory session will introduce you to scenario planning, a method which allows us to examine the future by exploring the contexts which would most challenge our current assumptions – then deciding how to act in the present, based on what we have discovered.

Participants will learn the fundamentals of scenario planning and experiment with practical foresight tasks which can be immediately used after the session, across teams and organisations both large and small.

Find out more and book your place at the event’s homepage.

Scenario Planning: Interview with Stefan Hajkowicz

Stefan Hajkowicz is a principal scientist in strategic foresight at the Australian science organisation CSIRO, leading its Data61 foresight team. I interviewed Stefan for my recent piece on scenario planning in Australia’s magazine for civil servants, The Mandarin – and the full interview is included here.

Stefan Hajkowicz standing outdoors, facing the camera
Stefan Hajkowicz of Data61

I began by asking Stefan: What should readers know about Data 61?

We take data driven approaches to strategic foresight, using AI and machine intelligence to analyse data and turn it into stories that help you to make choices.

On an issue like climate change, for example, the science might be well and truly settled, but the social and cultural aspects of our response to the issue are still uncertain – and depending on these choices, we’ll come to inhabit very different futures. Scenarios help us to think through these outcomes.

Both reason and intuition have a part to play, and the best decisions combine both – though no model is 100% perfect. History is our dataset for the future. Although, to quote Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. If we can gain the ability to look ahead twenty years, and bring the future forward to now, we can make better informed choices.

 

Read more

Interview with Joshua Polchar, OECD

As part of last month’s article on scenario planning for The Mandarin, I interviewed Joshua Polchar, a strategic foresight analyst and facilitator at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

OECD Conference Centre Paris – Photo by Wikipedia user Nick D – CC BY-SA 3.0

Scenario planning has been part of the OECD’s futures toolkit in the 1970s, but over the last decade, the organisation has started to enhance its capacity for strategic foresight.

Joshua began the conversation by explaining why – I’ll let him take it from here: Read more

Scenario Planning at The Mandarin: Prediction vs. Plausibility

My December 2019 article in Australia’s publication for public sector leaders, The Mandarin, is available here on my site and can be republished freely.

Here’s the full text of “We Can’t Predict the Future, but Scenario Planning Can Identify What It Might Look Like“:

File:Parliament House Canberra NS.jpg
Australia’s Federal Parliament house, by Wikipedia user JJ Harrison – (CC BY-SA 3.0)

What would it mean to prepare for a future that you didn’t see coming?

Whether it’s the Brexit vote, Trump’s presidency, the global financial crisis, or the changing climate, we increasingly face what some foresight experts call “TUNA” conditions, characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. In such circumstances, old models of the future lose predictive power, and our expectations are thwarted.

Scenario planning is a foresight methodology that seeks not to predict the future but to usefully challenge our assumptions about what’s coming next. The pioneering scenario planner Pierre Wack was among the figures who developed the approach in the mid-20th century and gave it credibility through successful strategic counsel at the oil firm Royal Dutch Shell. Read more

2019 GovLove Hit Parade: Leadership & Scenario Planning

The US-based GovLove Podcast, run by the Engaging Local Government Leaders network (ELGL),  celebrates the end of each year by showcasing the most popular episodes of the previous 12 months.

I’m pleased to announce that July’s episode on Leadership & Scenario Planning, which I recorded with ELGL’s Kirsten Wyatt, has taken the number one slot.

Check out the whole list in this Twitter thread from the GovLove team.

 

Truth, lies, fake news, futures, Brexit

So, after the UK election, it looks like Brexit will be happening, barring a truly wild turn of events.

It hasn’t mattered to the electorate that politicians have lied to them; they haven’t been put off by misleading videos, the rebranding of a party’s social media account as a “fact checking” service, or the failure of politicians to submit to debates, interviews, and media scrutiny.

In fact, perhaps voters wanted to be misled – to be told that one can simply “get Brexit done”, after years of wrangling.

For information professionals, this moment returns us to the idea that policing facts will not solve the various issues of trust in information which have been bundled as “fake news”. People might accept being misled if they believe the political system is stacked against them; it seems people will also accept being misled if they are tired and frustrated by politicians’ failure to thread the needle of Brexit’s self-inflicted crisis.

Brits voted to leave the European Union in 2016 without a clear definition of what that meant, or what future relationship with Europe was being mandated. Politicians struggled to parse the meaning of that vote and, when Theresa May returned to the polls in 2017, the renewed “will of the people” was clearly and legitimately expressed in the form of a divided parliament. Nobody had a clear sense of how to deal with the outcome of that referendum.

Now, it seems the voters of the United Kingdom have chosen to slice the Gordian knot, irrespective of whether or not Alexander has lied to them, or what other cherished ties might be undone in that stroke.

What does all this mean for information professionals? Read more