Modern Management Challenges


Five Questions about Scenario Thinking

We asked George Cairns, author of Scenario Thinking, five questions about his book.

What is scenario thinking and how does it differ from just “thinking about what might go wrong”?​​​​​​​

Scenario thinking is a structured process for looking at all possible and plausible futures in relation to a specific question – what might go wrong and what can go right – and, importantly, knowing the reasons why each might happen.

That’s interesting, but why does this book matter? If I take the time to read it, how will it make me better at what I do or make my organisation more successful?

Decision makers in contemporary organizations are extremely busy – often focused on what needs to happen now. They find it difficult to consider how things might change dramatically. Look at the world as we talk – do we face potential global trade wars? If so, what will be the impact on your organization? You may think you’re not affected, but that would be foolhardy. Our book makes you think about the limitations of ‘business as usual’ thinking – to look for opportunities for future success and to avoid pitfalls that threaten current success.

OK, you’ve convinced me, but how do I convince others in my team that we need to take this seriously? We’re all really busy working on plans and goals based on “what is” – how do I justify spending time on “what might be”?

The best way to convince others is to give a relevant example. We use our own examples – like the laughter that greeted the notion of President Trump and Brexit in February 2016, months before the votes had even taken place. There are most likely examples from your own organization where things didn’t turn out as expected, but where what did happen was not inconceivable. Making the ideas relevant to your audience is key.

There are obviously an infinite number of possible future events that could have an impact on my organization. How do I decide which are sufficiently worrying to consider?

We often start with the question, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’ It is important to have a focal question that outlines an uncertainty about the future that is of direct relevance to your own organization. The investigation then builds around how different futures might impact resolution of that question – and what response options are then available.

If I was to take just one thing away from this book, what would you want it to be?

The key message we want to get across is to adopt scenario thinking as a way of being. If you have a problem and only 30 minutes to come up with an answer, don’t jump to looking for the ‘right’ answer until you have considered all possible options, to ensure you have the ‘best’ answer.

George Cairns is an Adjunct Professor at QUT Business School, Brisbane, and the author of Scenario Thinking. He has taught scenario methods in the UK, Europe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai and led scenario research on post-carbon futures, farm futures and regional regeneration in Australia. George has co-authored two books and numerous journal articles on scenario methods.

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