Alternative futures (scenario) planning has traditionally been the tool of choice for leaders concerned about potentially disruptive long-term challenges in their future operating environment. Alternative futures has always been about building robust strategies and plans that would work no matter how the future turned out. That’s still the case, but in recent years increasing numbers of organizations have adopted alternative futures to meet more short-term challenges and to build a positive, resilient spirit among leaders and personnel dealing with a wide range of workplace and homelife challenges, including most recently the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, FSG was approached by The Holdsworth Center, a Texas-based nonprofit dedicated to providing leadership development in education, including to school superintendents and their core staffs.
School district administration is complex and challenging in the best of times, with leaders responsive to state and local government, parents, and academic research on the one hand, and school leaders, teachers, and students on the other. Since 2020, every aspect of this work has been disrupted by the Covid pandemic, with harsh and persistent stresses on senior district leaders.
In light of these conditions, Holdsworth saw an opportunity to integrate alternative futures thinking into its own leadership development curriculum — to expose school leaders to opportunities as well as challenges presented by uncertain futures, and to undertake this journey in a collaborative, supportive setting.
This innovative approach had in part been sparked by a timely article in Harvard Business Review, describing the work FSG had done over a number of years with the US Coast Guard in Project Evergreen. The Coast Guard had used scenario planning as part of a “cycle of strategic renewal” to help its leaders think and act strategically – and more broadly, to build resilience and futures readiness throughout the workforce and the culture.
This corresponded more or less exactly with what Holdsworth wanted – to stretch the successive cohorts of leaders that it would train and prepare them for a future that would continue to serve up challenges. And working in this way – explicitly considering and discussing future challenges and the potential robust strategies that might address them – would bring both strategic and therapeutic benefits.
Building on interviews with key figures in and around Texas education, FSG and a Holdsworth project team identified a number a key macro factors that in combination would affect the future of education in Texas. From a number of different possible combinations of these, the team selected four scenario “worlds” to explore, a set that captured a range of challenges and opportunities over the coming decade: shifting requirements, competition from private educational providers, diversity and equity , demographic shifts, curriculum changes, teacher shortages, climate change and extreme weather events and more. (Ironically, the workshop was delayed a few weeks following the freak snowstorm that hit the state in February 2021.)
The first workshop was facilitated virtually by FSG as a pilot and was widely considered a great success.
Encouraged by this initial success, Holdsworth is planning future scenario workshops in-person, at its newly inaugurated campus in Austin, beginning with a new leadership cohort in early 2022.