Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

The Art of the Wrong View

In one of my classes at the University of Denver, I try to teach my students how to manage technologies that constantly morph and change. They’re unpredictable, they’re slippery, and managing them effectively can make the difference between success and failure.

The students, of course, want to predict the future so they can prepare for it.  I try to convince them that predicting the future is impossible. But they’re young. They can explain the past, so why can’t they predict the future?

To help them prepare for the future — though not predict it — I often teach the techniques of scenario planning. You tell structured stories about the future and then work through them logically to understand which way the world might tilt. The technique has common building blocks, often referred to as PESTLE.  Your stories need to incorporate political, economic, societal, technical, legal, and environmental frameworks. This helps ensure that you don’t overlook anything.

I’ve used scenario planning a number of times and it has always helped me think through situations in creative ways – so it seems reasonable to teach it. To prepare for a recent class, I re-read The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz. I found it on one of my dustier bookshelves and discovered it was the 1991 edition.  While I remembered many of the main points, I was surprised to find a long chapter titled, “The World in 2005: Three Scenarios”. Here was a chance to see how well the inventor of scenario planning could prepare us for the future.

In sum, I was quite disappointed. The main error was that each scenario vastly overestimated the importance of Japan on the world stage in 2005. In a way, it all makes sense. The author was writing in 1991, when we all believed that Japan might just surpass every other economy on earth. Of course, he would assume that Japan would still dominate in 2005. Of course, he was wrong.

So what can we learn from this?  Two things, I think:

  1. Always remember to ask the reverse question. If it’s “obvious” that a trend will continue (e.g. Japan will dominate) always remember to ask the non-obvious question: what if it doesn’t? Today, it seems obvious that health care costs will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. But what if we make a medical breakthrough and costs plummet?
  2. Remember that resilience is better than prediction. We’ll never be able to predict the future — partially because we can’t really explain the past. But we can be prepared by building flexible systems that can respond to unexpected jolts. The human immune is probably a good model. This means building systems and organizations where information flows easily, creativity is valued, and leaders can emerge from anywhere.

I’ll continue to teach scenario planning in the future. After all, it’s a good template for thinking and planning. I’ll also be able to provide a very good example of how it can all go wrong.

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