Being a futurist is a bit like majoring in something obscure in college: you end up having to spend a lot of time explaining to people just what it is that you do, and why other people should care. So I was gload to have recently run across an online copy of Art Kleiner's essay "Doing Scenario Work" (originally published in the Whole Earth Review in 1999), as it does a good job of explaining what scenarios are– both as a form of reasoning and as kind of practice— and why they're valuable.
Scenarios are imaginative pictures of potential futures, but the future is just a means to an end. These conversations, at once free-flowing and rigorously constrained, are designed to help a group of people trick themselves to see past their own blind spots. Herman Kahn, one of the founding innovators of the practice, developed scenarios to see past the cultural blind spot that thermonuclear war must never happen. What if it did happen? asked Kahn. What sort of world might the survivors face? One dismayed critic, Gerard Piel of Scientific American, coined the phrase "thinking the unthinkable" to describe Kahn's approach, but Kahn gleefully embraced the phrase. Thinking the unthinkable, he argued, was the only way to keep one's strategic vision from getting stale.
Pierre Wack, who refined Kahn's methods at Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1970s and early 1980s, also focused on unthinkable possibilities. When he described the coming oil crisis of the 1970s, in advance, to Shell executives (and national leaders), he wasn't telling them a surprise; everyone in the oil business could see the OPEC cartel coalescing, ready to dictate shortages to an oil-addicted world. But Wack made it clear that the long-standing oil company assumption– "Whatever crisis crosses our path, we'll handle it as we always have" – would not save them this time. They could not meet the turbulence of the economy around them with their old stolid complacency.
Wack used to talk of future study as an analogue to Zen archery, a way to hone ones' senses until you could see the world as it really is, not as you would like it to be. But most of the oil executives never got his message, in part because they never took part, themselves, in the scenario creation sessions. That's why scenario planning is valuable. It forces us – not just corporate people, but activists, artists, non-profit staffers, and just about anyone – to learn to see more clearly the possible worlds in which the unimaginable, the unthinkable, the ungodly, and the unpredictable, actually come to pass. If we can imagine such worlds, and feel our way around them in our imaginations for a while, then we can prepare ourselves for whatever future does come to pass.