It’s a common New Year’s Eve activity for pundits to look back over the past year, offering speculations about the future. You don’t have to look far to find a prediction of candidates for US President, winners of sporting events, or Apple’s next product announcement. Although these predictions entertain us, belief in their accuracty can lull a person into complacency.
Since (by definition), strategic thinking is focused on success in the future, a competent strategic thinker is interested in the future. The strategic thinker approaches forecasts and predictions with caution. The belief in prediction is wishful; there is not one path the future. Instead, there are countless possible future states. On the other hand, attempting to analyze the countless possible future is inefficient and frustrating.
Many readers have heard of a technique called scenario writing. It’s a good starting point for emphasizing the importance of considering shapes, structures, evidence, and uncertainty as fundamentals of foresight. This contrasts with big dreams, linear timelines and events.
The first step is to selecting two significant sources of uncertainty. The second step is arranging them into a cross to create a 2×2 matrix (of four quadrants). Each quadrant is a scenario. The third step is writing a narrative that answering the question, What events and structures would cause to that particular scenario and what would be your response if the scenario came to be?
An Example: What might be the future of strategic thinking?
I’m a stakeholder in the question of strategic thinking. I want my efforts in coaching and teaching strategic thinking to reach an audience and have an impact. What might the “future of strategic thinking?”
I’ll examine four scenarios with the above-described approach. To construct the framework, I identify two significant sources of uncertainty. I asked myself the question, what would most affect my ultimate success in achieving impact with my thought leadership. These are what I judge to be the two biggest unknowns:
- There is a new dominant idea in the management and leadership space. In the past, managers have seen ideas like Excellence, Six Sigma, and Big Data become focal points for training, conferences, and books. Perhaps there will be a big idea, and perhaps not.
- Economic growth. Perhaps the world or domestic economy grows, or perhaps it contracts.
I named the four resulting scenarios as shown on the nearby graphic. I am somewhat of an optimist, so I think that we will see global economic growth for the next few years. I am less confident in predicting whether there will be a big idea that gets mindshare. I believe that each of the four scenarios in the nearby graphic are equally likely, and this belief shapes the actions that I will take to adapt to the future.
As I wrote earlier, a strategic thinker emphasizes shapes and structure, not events and timelines. Here are a few more learnings:
- The goal of scenario writing is not prediction, but rather to discern the possible states toward which the future might be “attracted.” This is because complex systems can be deterministic, but unpredictable.
- Look around for current evidence that supports or denies one of the scenarios. This evidence is a faint signal and you have to judge whether it is both plausible and significant.
- Use analogies, but use them with caution.
Scenario writing requires imagination and discipline. It’s a good tool for enhancing your strategic thinking.
Do you agree that your goal is to seek flexible alternatives of the future?