Art of Long View: Future, Uncertainty and Scenario Planning

Art of Long View: Future, Uncertainty and Scenario Planning


Key Concepts:

  • Fundamental Uncertainty
  • Knightian Uncertainty
  • Long term Thinking
  • Possibility Space
  • Probabilistic Space
  • Plausibility
  • Anticipation
  • Strategic Conversations
  • Strategic Narratives
  • Strategic Scenarios
  • Normative Scenarios
  • Causal Layered Analysis
  • Strategic Learning
  • Integral Futures
  • Multiple Futures
  • Multiple Horizons


Key People:

  • Peter Schwartz
  • Stewart Brand
  • Jay Ogilvy
  • Kees Van Der Heijden
  • Michel Godet
  • Pierre Wack
  • Herman Kahn
  • P J H Schoemaker
  • Arie De Gues
  • Napier Collyns
  • Eric Best
  • Art Kleiner
  • Thomas J Chermack
  • Gill Ringland
  • Angela Wilkinson
  • Adam Kahane
  • Ged Davis
  • Russell Ackoff
  • Jay Forrester
  • Peter Senge
  • Andy Hines
  • Peter Bishop
  • R Slaughter
  • Sohail Inayatullah
  • Rafael Ramirez
  • Roberto Poli
  • Riel Miller
  • George Wright
  • Eamonn Kelly
  • Katherine Fulton


From How plausibility-based scenario practices are grappling with complexity to appreciate and address 21st century challenges

The tighter interconnections of natural, social and economic systems lead to increased uncertainty and greater complexity. The growing list of today’s significant concerns, whether focused on fixing the financial crisis or progressing socio-ecological sustainability highlights the urgency to look forward and manage large scale, system transformations [1] and challenges the conventional western economic wisdom of continuous, linear or exponential growth. Failure to engage with irreducible uncertainty is more widely appreciated and attempts to tame uncertainty can make matters worse [2].

Scenarios were introduced over 50 years ago as a means to overcome the limits of linear, reductionist and deterministic thinking that underpinned the then dominant practices of forecast-based planning. Scenario builders reject the notion of wholly predictable futures and instead seek to construct alternative futures which explore not only the paths to each, but do so in a way that emphasizes the need to attend to disruptive change as normal. Scenarios work is conducted in different sectors – public, private, civil and academia – and for a wide range of purposes, such as learning [7], strategy [8], or conflict avoidance [9].

Scenario practices have evolved from a “hypothetical sequencing of events constructed with the purpose of focusing attention on causal structures and decision points” [10] to attendance to the dynamic interactions that create disruptive and turbulent change as organizations co-evolve with their wider contexts [11]. At the same time, continuous innovation and diversity of scenario practices result in methodological confusions and misunderstandings [12]. To avoid contributing to further confusion we first define and then justify our interest in one particular tradition of practice.

Bradfield et al. [13] highlight three different scenario ‘schools’. In this paper we focus on what those authors refer to as Intuitive Logics, with its emphasis on plausible alternative futures, in contrast with the normative French School and the probabilistic USA School. Our choice to focus on the intuitive logics school is justified by evidence of its growing dominance in non-probabilistic scenario work [14].

Schoemaker [15] describes how plausibility-based scenarios are useful approaches in situations characterized by increasing uncertainty and complexity. He notes the effectiveness of scenarios as a psychological basis for addressing biases due to cognitive limits and overcoming ‘group think’ resulting from consensus building processes in social organizations.

In the intuitive logics tradition, the future is a fiction. Scenarios are ‘open stories’ [16] and stories and storytelling are deployed as a means to engage intuition, expose deeply held assumptions and forge new and shared interpretative frames. The assumption is that the emerging future cannot be forecasted but can be imagined and “lived in” and offers a different perspective to learning about the present than history alone provides. In effect, plausibility-based scenarios offer reframing devices rather than forecasting tools [17,18]. Scenarios are not populated with facts but with perceptions, assumptions and expectations.

Quality of a good scenario is not determined by its predictive accuracy but by its impact which can be evaluated in different ways — cognitive shift, enhancing judgment, leading to more and better strategic options and/or motivating change [19].

Despite the extensive and continued use of intuitive logics scenarios in the public and private sectors, the diversity of methods can lead to a wholesale dismissal of these practices by empiricist traditions of inquiry and evidence-based decision making cultures [20,21]. At the same time organizations, such as Shell, which have sustained the practice of plausibility-based, intuitive logics scenarios for over 50 years, appreciate the added value in terms of enabling decision makers to engage with uncertainty, enabling systemic insights and contributing to the adaptive capacity of the firm [21].

In contrast with the objectivist and positivist ontologies of probabilistic scenario practices, constructivism, nominalism and post-normal science are the mainstays of the plausibility-based, intuitive logics tradition [10,12,48,49]. As Burrell and Morgan [50] noted, a realist sees the nature of reality as ‘out there’, hard and concrete, while the nominalist sees the social world as the result of individual cognition and made up of names, labels and concepts. Wilkinson and Eidinow [12] note the objectivist– constructivist dichotomy between probable and plausible scenario traditions. Scenarios are pragmatic rather than positivistic: events and behaviors are explained from the perspective of the individuals involved and thus reflect equally valid understandings from multiple points in a system. A central challenge is thus to navigate plurality [51] (Table 1).

For many complexity practitioners, the science of multi- level interconnected systems is extending the boundary of uncertainty where quantitative analysis is applicable. Agent- based modeling is one of the new techniques being used to undertake quantitative assessment of the probability of the collapse of system resilience [52], enabling a statistical forecast of the transition between various regimes of the system. Such approach proved relevant in addressing in- stabilities in financial markets and the role of contagion of norms as proposed by Axelrod [53], or Gintis [54] in the reframing obesity as an epidemic [55] rather than induced by the marketing of dubious foods.

Paul Cilliers [56] reflects on the ontology of complexity as follows: “The argument from complexity thus wants to move beyond the objective/subjective dichotomy”. He goes on to say that complexity science is in some ways an extension of the traditional scientific approach, but the ontological issues are shifted to the problem of boundaries. Since complex systems are open systems that interact with other systems, the choice of boundary is arbitrary. He quotes the notion of ‘operational closure’ as a useful approach, rooted in pragmatism. The uncertainty on the state of the system in the future is therefore objectively bound by formal mathematical modeling, but at the same time subjectively framed through the (explicit or implicit) choices concerning critical systems heuristics e.g. definition of the system boundaries.



Key Sources of Research:


Scenario Planning and Strategic Forecasting

Jay Ogilvy


Living in the futures

Angela Wilkinson


Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead

Pierre Wack


Scenarios: Shooting the Rapids

Pierre Wack


Planning As Learning


The Living Company


The Use and Misuse of Scenarios


Scenario Planning


WHAT IF? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits


Shell Scenarios


A Review of Scenario Planning Literature


The origins and evolution of scenario techniques in long range business planning

Ron Bradfielda, George Wrightb, George Burt, George Cairns, Kees Van Der Heijden


Directions in Scenario Planning Literature – A Review of the Past Decades

Celeste Amorim Varuma, Carla Melo


A review of scenario planning


Muhammad Amer, Tugrul U. Daim *, Antonie Jetter



The current state of scenario development: an overview of techniques

Peter Bishop, Andy Hines and Terry Collins


Integrating organizational networks, weak signals, strategic radars and scenario planning

Paul J.H. Schoemaker ⁎, George S. Day, Scott A. Snyder


Advantages and disadvantages of scenario approaches for strategic foresight

Dana Mietzner and Guido Reger




Rafael Ramirez  & Cynthia Selin


Scenario building: Uses and abuses

Philippe Durance, Michel Godet


The Role of System Theory in Scenario Planning


Thomas Chermack


The Art of Scenarios and Strategic Planning: Tools and Pitfalls



A Scenario-based Approach to Strategic Planning – Integrating Planning and Process Perspective of Strategy

Torsten Wulf, Philip Meißner, Stephan Stubner


An Introduction to the Ontology of Anticipation

Roberto Poli


Being Without Existing: The Futures Community at a Turning Point? A Comment on Jay Ogilvy’s “Facing the Fold”

By Riel Miller’s_Facing_the_fold/links/53f70d4d0cf22be01c452fae.pdf


Riel Miller, Roberto Poli and Pierre Rossel

The Discipline of Anticipation: Exploring Key Issues



Towards an ontology of the present moment


Anthony Hodgson


Augmenting the intuitive logics scenario planning method for a more comprehensive analysis of causation

James Derbyshire , George Wright


Plotting Your Scenarios

Jay Ogilvy and Peter Schwartz


When and How to Use Scenario Planning: A Heuristic Approach with Illustration

Paul J.H. Schoemaker


Futures literacy: A hybrid strategic scenario method

Riel Miller


From Forecasting and Scenarios to Social Construction: Changing Methodological Paradigms in Futures Studies

Richard A. Slaughter


Developing and Applying Strategic Foresight

Richard A. Slaughter



What difference does ‘integral’ make?

Richard A. Slaughter


Framework foresight: Exploring futures the Houston way

Andy Hines , Peter C. Bishop



Anthony Hodgson and Gerald Midgley


Seeing in Multiple Horizons: Connecting Futures to Strategy

Andrew Curry

Anthony Hodgson


Introduction to Strategic Foresight : A Resource Bibliography

Dr. Peter Bishop


40 Years of Shell Scenarios

Shell International


Scenarios as a Tool for the 21st Century

Ged Davis

Shell International


The Evolution of Integral Futures: A Status Update

Terry Collins & Andy Hines


integral futures

by Richard A. Slaughter


Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming

Sohail Inayatullah


How plausibility-based scenario practices are grappling with complexity to appreciate and address 21st century challenges

Angela Wilkinson, Roland Kupers , Diana Mangalagiu


Scenario Method: Current developments in theory and practice

Technological Forecasting and Social Change

Volume 80, Issue 4, Pages 561-838 (May 2013)

Edited by George Wright, George Cairns and Ron Bradfield