Imagining Alternative Futures through Scenarios


There is no such thing as the future. There are only the futures…the alternative futures.  This is proverbial among those who study the future… or should I say, the futures. This is one of the first steps towards being “future ready”. Imagining possible alternative futures is a very human capacity. But there are tools that can also help.

One tool that futurists use to help leaders and decision makers is the scenario planning process. Many of you leaders do this naturally, especially those of you who must be ready for contingencies at all times. You are intuitive experts at scenario thinking.

Scenarios are useful fictions that can develop your team’s capacity to anticipate and deal with change.
Last week I participated in a scenario planning workshop to formalize and deepen my understanding of how scenarios work. Scenarios are vignettes designed to inspire conversation about the alternative futures.

Our task, in the workshop, was to create scenarios about the fashion industry in the year 2025. The fact that none of us had any experience in the fashion industry proved to be a plus. What we learned was the process of scenario creation regardless of our lack of knowledge. Having learned the process allows us to help industry professionals take their raw knowledge of their industry, whatever it might be, and turn it into scenarios that create conversation and perhaps even prove useful for decision making.

Breaking With The Past

A recent piece (May 2013) in the Harvard Business review titled, Living In the Futures, tells a little of the history of scenario planning. Almost 50 years ago Royal Dutch Shell began to use scenario planning as a way of anticipating the “futures”.  The article states that (for Shell) scenario planning

 “…has helped break the habit, ingrained in most corporate planning, of assuming that the future will look much like the present. As unthreatening stories, scenarios enable Shell executives to open their minds to previously inconceivable or imperceptible developments.”

How many of you lead teams that behave as though the future will be just like today? This belief can blind us to the changes that are happening and may happen in our external environment. Many of you work in industries that are experiencing disruptive change. And more change is on the way. And it’s coming faster than ever. Teams need to be future-fitted.


Click the image to tweet the text. Thanks!
Click the image to tweet the text. Thanks!

For example, in the M network several of us have been discussing several plausible future scenarios for faith-based organizations in the USA. One of them looks something like this: It’s the year 2050 and the tax benefits extended to religious organizations cease. The loss of tax benefits is a plausible alternative future. Where do churches, mosques, and synagogues go from there? What are the possible futures?

How will your organization adapt in order to thrive? What changes would need to be made? What perspectives would need to change?

The questions this post is designed to provoke is, How ready are you and your team for change? Have you created scenarios for the kinds of things that might impact your business? Do you have mental maps and narratives that might keep you ahead of the curve? How pliable is your organization culture? What is your team’s “complexipacity” ( the capacity to deal with complexity)?

Creating narrative (scenarios) about the kinds of things that can happen can begin to create confidence in your ability to anticipate the future and adapt to change. But the key point here isn’t about scenarios and how to create them. It’s about the necessity of foresight. In a rapidly changing world, leaders need to not only study the past, they must study the future.

What do you think?


A large part of my work is to help leaders and organizations think about the future. I trust that this is why, in part, you visit this site. If you want additional training on thinking about the future, I invite you to consider the 3-Day or 5-Day immersions in Strategic Leadership. We’d love to have you join us. Visit for details.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: