May you live in interesting times.
There’s a legendary saying of (questionable) decent. Some attribute it as an ancient Chinese saying, while others say it was British Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain (1924-1929) who had spent time in China and who may have picked up the sentiment – if not the saying – while there. As the story goes, he related that “May you live in an interesting age” is a curse heaped upon an enemy and then mused that in fact, "no age has been more fraught with insecurity than our own present time."
Whether the statement is paraphrased or from the actual Chinese, two things are certain. One, that it is a curse meant to thrust chaos into times of tranquility. Two, Chamberlain’s observation is timeless. He may have been right when he said, "no age has been more fraught with insecurity than our own present time," but our current era proves that chaos and insecurity are enduring human truths.
A century ago, leaders built strategies and acted in the absence of data, cognitive science, or predictive analytics. Certainly, that lack of hard intelligence must have demanded much more instinctual decision-making than today’s leaders are forced to engage. In the modern era, the accelerating pace of change, global hyperconnectivity, and real-time news raises our awareness of ‘interesting’ events like climate change, cyber-attacks, rogue nation states, political gridlock, and economic difficulty. And even though we have more information than ever before, our leaders face uncertainty on every level, from highly detailed to big picture.
Scenario Planning in an Uncertain Environment
Long-range resource allocation and prioritization is an incredibly complex task, given the speed and volume of change and the unlimited possible future outcomes for every decision. Even short-range tactical challenges now require sophisticated resources. It’s a circular, ironic situation – even addressing smaller, more limited issues require sophisticated resources, in part because those resources exist.
It’s become natural to see big data and advanced analytics as solutions in and of themselves. But overreliance on data can lead to flawed solutions. Complex challenges require a nuanced approach. While powerful data analytics likely give structure and direction to a strategy, it must be paired with qualitative and intuitive considerations. Together, you get a more complete understating of the drivers of change and how they are vital to achieving optimal outcomes across a spectrum of possible futures.
A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine about the world of patient healthcare decisions highlights the benefits of a balanced data-human approach.
“Well-constructed scenarios manage complexity by prioritizing the deepest concerns and values of the decision maker. This personalization helps patients create new perceptions about how their illness might progress and the implications for daily life. By exposing obstacles, scenarios promote the strategic thinking that is essential in considering treatments for complex health problems.” 
As we see in this example, managing data complexity and wholeheartedly embracing uncertainty are keys to successful scenario planning. The approach enables planners to prioritize for expected factors while acknowledging the certain impact of external influences that will shape how the actual future unfolds.
Constructing a range of future scenarios based upon present uncertainties is a multifaceted process:
- Data points clarify the range of possibilities and uncover change drivers
- Data modeling and analytics help to identify potential trends
- Qualitative analysis adds depth that may be missing from the raw data
- Collaborative, human-centered design exercises allow participants to “live in the worlds” so they can focus on a range of possible outcomes
ALTERNATE FUTURES® Scenario Planning
Developing ALTERNATE FUTURES® scenarios long has been a mainstay of the Toffler Associates approach to future-proofing organizations. The methodology identifies drivers of change that are valid across a wide range of possible futures. Participants have the opportunity to test decision outcomes in multiple possible environments. Using the knowledge of likely change drivers, we can create scenarios that our clients use to “stand in the future” so they can safely test and experience the opportunities, risks, and consequences of various courses of action.
Part of what makes this approach to scenario planning so incredibly valuable is that it forces leaders to step away from the pressures and pace that tyrannize day-to-day operations. By taking the time to use hard information and deep intuition, they are more likely to make intentional decisions that shape desired outcomes. For those tasked with establishing government policy, business plans, patient treatment plans, or other vital strategies, the process is a way to build confidence around the knowledge that certain things are more likely than not to happen.
ALTERNATE FUTURES® scenario planning is not predicting the future. We do know that we have lived, do live, and will continue to live “in interesting times.” With ALTERNATE FUTURES® scenario planning, we can build a range of possibilities to create the clarity and confidence that lead to sound decisions in a complex and fast-changing world.
It’s time to balance the known with the sensed, and consider every reasonable possibility for the future.