Scenario Planning and the Cynefin framework

I have recently been at a workshop conducted by David Snowden and Viv Read for accreditation into the Cognitive Edge world.  More on this another time but it was a most interesting few days learning about the theory and application of a range of techniques that are quite powerful in a range of contexts.

Dave has recently made a couple of posts about the limitations of scenario planning which I have heard him mention on a number of previous occasions.  In particular, that the use of scenario planning is more applicable for the ordered domains in the Cynefin framework.  In his words:

[scenario planning] lies in the space of the “knowable” future, complicated, susceptible to analysis yes, but inherently a near equilibrium state. In a complex system boundary conditions and attractor mechanisms (the knowable aspects of a complex system) may benefit from such application.

Dave further mentions other techniques such as Future Backwards that can used to manage uncertain complex environments.  In one of his blog posts, Dave says that “Future Backwards is not an alternative to Scenario Planning” yet in describing the approach on the Cynefin website and in the other blog post, it says “This technique was developed as an alternative to scenario planning and is designed to increase the number of perspectives that a group can take both on an understanding of their past, and of the range of possible futures. ”  Somewhat confusing. 

After seeing future backwards work a couple of times, I do see it somewhat as an alternative to scenario planning as both map out future worlds.  They are also quite different.  Future Backwards identifies impossibly good (heaven) and bad (Hell) future states and the possible journeys from each of those positions with a kick-off point from an timeline.  Scenario planning on the other hand tends to offer more scenarios than just those two that are often not simply heaven and hell, and tend to be more plausible rather than extreme.  Scenarios tend to have a common past (which is the present) whereas the views of the future developed through Future Backwards may have an alternative timeline of significant events than that of the present.  Future Backwards aims to construct a consensus view of the history while scenario planning aims to identify consensus views of the future and tends not to examine the past at all.  Dave states that scenario planning tends to create their stories going forwards in time whereas future backwards constructs history in reverse which is much harder to game.  Many scenarios that I have seen developed work best when the future timeline is created backwards using the backcasting technique rather than forwards in a story-telling manner (although this might then be used to construct the narrative of the scenario for communication purposes). 

I am particularly interested in Dave’s positioning of scenario planning in the ordered domain.  The key to scenarios is to map uncertainties with the standard approach identifying what issues are most uncertain and most important and to use these as the main scenario logics.  Dave’s view appears to be that scenarios are attempts to project the future and that by doing this, it constrains the organisation to only consider these futures.  In a sense this is true with the art of scenario planning trying to identify those issues that are deemed to be the most plausible and critical for considering the organisation’s future.

Much of the modern essence of scenario planning is that the scenarios themselves don’t necessarily matter.  They are useful constructs of possible future worlds to frame and inform current and future strategies for an organisations.  The classical Shell approach of identifying future scenarios and monitoring to see if they come true and adjusting organisational strategies to fit is quite simplistic and is not the purpose of scenario planning that I have witnessed for many organisations. 

The complex unordered domain in the Cynefin framework is one of probe, sense and respond rather than the complicated ordered domain of sense, analyse and respond.  Is the creation of scenarios a probe into the future to make sense of an uncertain world (my view of scenario formation in a complex ontological frame) or is it to sense different future worlds and then analyse them using expert opinion.  Much modern scenario planning is an emergent process – the future scenarios and their strategic insights cannot be determined beforehand – there is retrospective coherence.  In this respect, they seem to more closely suit the complex domain.

Another interesting futures approach that Cognitive Edge is exploring is using fitness landscapes to identify weak signals that could not be determined beforehand – that have no predetermined scenarios around them.  Weak signal detection is one of the bugbears of any environmental scanning system and the new stuff that Dave is working on certainly seems to be a winner here compared with other methods of trawling through reams of information trying to paste together a possible impact.


4 Responses to Scenario Planning and the Cynefin framework

  1. Dave Snowden says:

    A couple of comments in what is an interesting post.
    – Future backwards was developed as an alternative to scenario planning, but once developed we realized that it was complementary which might explain the confusion
    – I am happy to agreed that a facilitated (with backcasting) scenario process can be emergent. However the minute those scenarios are stabilised as stories (as they always are) then their use becomes ordered and constrains the future. Event emergent processes cannot forecast the future, hence the danger.

  2. Luke says:

    Thanks Dave – only 24 minutes to respond to that post – that’s a great effort!
    Confusion clarified – that makes sense.
    I can see how once the scenarios are stablised and normalised, then their use can become more ordered, particularly if the scenario is normative. Yet many scenarios are treated as perspectives of alternative futures, rather than forecasts of probable futures (a narrower view of the future). Scneraios are emergent possibilities canvassing a range of different potential future pathways. I agree that there is often a tendency for scenarios to constrain other views of the future which is one of their weaknesses. But their main strength is that they consider alternative futures rather than the sole desired forecast view with its obvious management perils.

  3. Chris says:

    Hi Luke, Dave

    The one thing that came up for me when considering David’s efforts to help organisations stay open to emergent futures (given that my company is called “Emergent Insights” 😉 is that:

    a) there are many different types of scenarios – see my paper reviewing teh evolution of the scenario method for example:
    b) the real value in any sceanrio process from my eperience is in the process, not the fixed artifact – it represents some of the features that may well have been emergent as they arose and were considered. The emphasis here is on seeing scenarios as a learning process – exploration and meaning making being King and Qeen here – not as an end in themselves.

    but then, taht’s a type of aprpach to scenarios that isn’t everyone’s;)

  4. Keeley says:

    I’ve just been sitting around waiting for something to happen.,

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