Written by Graeme Sinnott, Active Partnerships National Team
Over the last few weeks I’ve been part of a number of conversations about scenario planning. Both structured exercises and informal discussions. With Active Partnership colleagues; colleagues across local authorities and leisure trusts; Sport England; wider sector partners; and charities seeking to tackle broader social issues.
Clearly scenario planning isn’t new. A quick search on Google suggests it dates back to the 16th century as a way of thinking. Herman Kahn appears to be widely attributed with mainstreaming scenario planning in the 1950s. Creating a technique for exploring and describing the future in stories as if written by people in the future. A useful descriptor.
A method to achieve much more
Local Trust commissioned research into different futures influenced by the impact of Covid-19. To create a foundation for decision makers, campaigners and communities to influence the process of change.
Martyn Allison wrote about how it could be a tool to aid our recovery.
I wrote 2 months ago about the NPC article that suggested systems thinking was no longer optional and how it was an opportunity. The core components of systems thinking appear to underpin the scenario planning discussions; eg, shared understanding of the problem, foresight, coordinated action.
Is the growing scenario planning conversation another sign that we are putting systems thinking into action more deliberately? Was scenario planning no longer optional? And what can we learn from it to embed into other practice?
What happened when people undertook scenario planning?
Below are some reflections on what I saw and heard in the exercises and informal discussions. What these conversations are meaning for helping people to be active is well written about. My observations focus more on how scenario planning was undertaken.
Beginning from what might be possible and working back to what you know
Seeking to avoid the narrative fallacy. Where you see the future as merely a slight variation on yesterday’s news. Instead, beginning from what might be possible. Taking the time to purposefully take yourself out of the here and now and into a future world.
Trying to have fun
Of course, the nature of the conversations and circumstances does not lend itself to fun. But the exercise of being creative and thinking of names for your imagined future worlds can be. By making it as fun (as was possible) it loosened up the atmosphere, felt informal and discussion flowed. 2
Enabling colleagues to share what matters most to them
People picked up on specific words and explained the emotions and thoughts it sparked in them. Enabling colleagues to share what they were most passionate about was a great conversation starter. Some of the words and phrases picked up on, and split opinion, included;
‘Return to play’; some suggested this was great and couldn’t wait to return to the sports and activities they love. Some suggested return implied going back and we needed to be looking forward.
‘Repair the sector’; some suggested repair implies a negative starting point and that something is broken, contradictory to asset-based approaches. That we should start from what is strong, not wrong.
And some have said forget anything that begins with ‘R’ and focus on ‘P’; prevention, public health and population health. Plan for every eventuality and remain agile to respond to need.
Uneasy thinking the unthinkable
The natural tendency appeared to be one of optimism. To focus on the best-case scenarios. But the scenario we want might not be the scenario we get. Focusing on extremes, including the worst-case scenarios, forced some people to confront the things that perhaps no one in the room wanted to raise. Time spent in this territory was limited and hesitant though.
Structure helped communication
The 4 grids that seem to typically be used in scenario planning not only helped thinking during the discussion but communication afterwards. Describing the future stories as if written by people in the future. There were lots of thoughts shared. Turning lots of thoughts into coherent stories that can be tools for influencing change can be tough and was helped by structured thinking throughout.
What can we learn from scenario planning during a crisis?
Lots of people are talking about the ways of working and behaviours we want to hold on to in a post Covid-19 world. From the scenario planning discussions specifically, might we want to hold on to and build on;
- Paying more attention to the future
- Thinking extremes and getting out of our comfort zone
- Using collective thinking as stories for influencing change
Scenario planning will continue to be a method for generating thoughts in the coming weeks and months. We should learn from it through the lens of system thinking to help inform how we work moving forward.