FSG Blog
March 12, 2024

The Teleporting Value of Scenario Planning

Kevin McDermott and Peter Kennedy
FSG Principals

The value of scenario planning is very much a function of participants’ ability to rigorously consider plausibly different ways the future could unfold.

FSG is used to hearing clients describe what they call the “teleporting power” of scenario planning. They’re referring to the experience of getting immersed in alternative future operating environments – scenarios – and allowing themselves to imagine challenges and opportunities free of today’s assumptions about what the future will be like. 

This may sound like magic. It is not magic. It is a matter of being present, staying focused on the future, and doing the hard work. 

The power of this is sometimes difficult to describe to the uninitiated. Even the most linear thinkers lose their resistance to a world different from the one they expect to happen looking out from 2024. It is typically a two-day process and ideally it is held offsite to resist the insidious pull of what a long-time FSG client calls “the tyranny of the present.”

How the teleportation happens

FSG scenario planners have learned over the years that a lot goes into getting scenario workshop participants to push their thinking and imaginations beyond what they know (or think they know) about the present. As mentioned above, a critical mass of undistracted time – ideally two-plus days offsite – is essential. Sufficient breaks are built into the workshop experience to allow participants to deal with critical office, clinic or lab matters. But the time in actual scenario session is considered sacrosanct, to the extent that we actively discourage use of phones or mobile devices.

The scenario cases themselves are the critical teleportation agents. These are developed in advance, typically after extensive meetings with client leadership and project sponsors. We encourage the formation of a client “core team” to work closely with us to ensure the scenario cases cover the range of future uncertainty the organization is facing. They must be crisply written, internally consistent, and set far enough out in the future that scenario workshop participants feel slightly disoriented and cannot fall back on prevailing assumptions and business-as-usual tactics.

The scenario cases also usually include a “day in the life” vignette that helps personalize the future scenario world and keep them emotionally relatable. Otherwise the scenario cases can come across as a cold collection of facts devoid of all-important human factors.

Scenario Planning Immersion

Participants are assigned a single scenario case and are expected to arrive at the workshop fully fluent in the ins and outs of their scenario world. FSG facilitators then lead them through a series of questions. For example: What is it like to live in this world? Who are your customers, stakeholders? How is value defined? How are things made, shipped, sold? What role does the government play in making rules, setting standards? Who are your competitors? What risks pertain? 

Ultimately each scenario team develops a set of strategies that respond to the critical challenges and opportunities posed by its assigned scenario world. An additional step in the scenario planning workshop process identifies common strategic elements that eventually become the foundation for plans and tactics.

The Unique Value of Scenario Planning Workshops

The unique value scenario planning comes from the teleportation effect. We hear this from clients as diverse as NASA planners, military leaders, and corporate CEOs. Scenario futures represent rich, neutral territory where no one is an expert. 

It’s not blue sky thinking. The value of scenario planning is about creativity and rigor – “rigorous imagination,” in the words of our FSG colleague Patrick Marren, who has just completed a book on the subject. 

For certain, not all organizations have the time or capacity to commit to in-depth scenario planning undertaking. But real, enduring scenario value isn’t realized without a serious commitment of time and attention on the part of the planners. A weekend retreat “exercise” using short, off-the-shelf scenarios will not generate the breakthrough insights or credibility needed to drive implementation of scenario-based strategies and plans. 

In our next installment, we’ll discuss some of the critical human factors at work in successful scenario planning workshops.  

This is the first of a two-part FSG series taking an in-depth look at the transformative power and value of scenario planning. 

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