Seeing the Future New York Times

December 10, 2003

in Strategic Foresight

Two pieces on strategic foresight and scenario planning. The first by a former colleague and mentor Jay Ogilvy who’s touch clearly graces the pages of “What Strategists Can Learn from Sartre” and the second a contrast in the New York Times.

.….Suddenly, humanity had a future — in the sense in which existentialists think of the future, as an open-ended, indeterminate field of untried possibilities. For existentialists, existence precedes essence. It’s not that no one or nothing has an essence. It’s just that essence, for free human beings, anyway, is achieved rather than prescribed. You become the results of the decisions you make. You don’t find yourself, as those suffering “identity crises” try to do. You make yourself by making decisions. You’re not just the result of the genes you inherited or the circumstances of your birth. Of course genes and family background make a difference, but what you choose to do with them is subject to existential freedom. ……

A future filled with new possibilities presents a backdrop for planning that is very different from a future that is a reshuffling of the same old same old. Reshufflings should follow laws that allow for prediction according to rules that cover every possibility. A future filled with genuinely new possibilities might not even be describable using categories and metrics that cover what has occurred before. How could a 19th-century scientist anticipate, much less predict, prime time, venture capital, gigabits-per-second, butterfly ballots, fuel cells, genetic engineering, cellular telephony, and so on?

Jay Ogilvy “Source”

Jay’s article provides a nice contrast with the short piece in the New York Times advocating broader use of Scenario techniques in government. Jay demonstrates the story-telling capability that must emerge though the process for scenarios to provide the infectious leadership tool that enables change and momentum. We need it in government and the descriptions in the NYT are good. The trick is scenarios is not the “how” but the context of “what”. There are millions of scenarios… — engaging people in a context where they can act is key to creating better futures.

In this new era of uncertainty, not only must we must accept that simple forecasting is not going to be very useful to us, we must sharpen our skills of forethought. One way will be to augment traditional strategic planning with “scenario planning,” a strategy that has long been a staple at the largest multinational corporations. Scenario planning involves the creation of alternative narratives about the future based on different decisions by many players” as each scenario progresses.

As opposed to the classic strategic method of applying the past to the future — coming up with a single, likeliest story about how things will turn out — scenario planning is about applying the future to the present, creating a learning framework for decisions. The idea is not so much to predict the future as to consider the forces that will push the future along different paths, in order to help leaders recognize new possibilities, assess new threats and make decisions that reach much further into the future.
Op-Ed Contributor: Seeing the Futures

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