The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
By Michelle Dawson
It’s the year 2050 and everyone is a cyborg. We are fighting over the earth’s remaining precious resources, including the last drops of naturally fresh spring water. The sky looms gray above, there is little green in sight, and we shade our eyes to protect from the bright rays of the sun beating down and unwanted stares from the strangers that surround us.
This is the future we are presented with so often. Personally, I’m opting out. I think there is a real problem with allowing our visions of the future to fill with messages of doom and gloom.
As the world seems more and more unpredictable and change happens at an increasingly rapid rate we need to look ahead and ask “what if” more than ever before. But there is another question that I believe is even more crucial, one that we must have the courage to ask and the conviction to act upon. We must also ask ourselves “what ought to be?”
This compelling question holds its greatest power when asked by an entire group. This requires a willingness to be open and authentic in what we truly desire.
One powerful tool by which to do this is scenario planning. As a MBA in Design Strategy student at California College of the Arts, I was introduced to the concept of scenario planning during the fall semester 2010 in Innovation Studio with Lisa Kay Solomon. In the process of scenario planning, diverse groups of stakeholders come together to create a shared vision of what might be. The group questions assumptions and considers what might happen based on relevant forces of change in the world in order to develop stories about provocative and plausible futures. The process stimulates rich conversation and can provide a language for consensus building and shared mental maps on which to build a strategy for the future.
A great resource for stories and examples of the scenario planning process is What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits by Diana Scearce, Katherine Fulton, and the Global Business Network community.
In this article, an example is provided of how scenario thinking brought together unlikely partners in South Africa in 1991. A group of leaders came together to envision the way to democracy as the country transitioned out of apartheid. They developed a set of four scenarios that came to be known as the Mont Fleur scenarios. When looking at these different possible futures, it became clear to the leaders in the room that one outcome was much more desirable than the others. There was a shared understanding of what they wanted to work towards as the framing shifted from what might be to the discovery of a best possible scenario – what ought to be. With this in mind, each individual leader was able to make difficult decisions that before seemed against their self interest as they worked towards the desired scenario.
This is the power of a shared story. In the DMBA program we are learning about the incredible strength stories carry in communicating messages through books like A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink and articles such as How Storytelling Builds Next-Generation Leaders by Douglas A. Ready. We then have the opportunity through group projects and presentations to develop stories and witness firsthand the emotional appeal and increased understanding stories can bring.
What I have discovered through my coursework is that even stronger than a story created by one is a story developed by many.
When you gather voices from different perspectives into one room and reach an agreement on what is best for the group, the story creates a pathway for the group to move forward on. The process generates rich dialogue about hopes and desires, fears and anxieties. I believe there is a real power in scenario thinking to create conversations that lead to sustainable strategies. Facilitators have used scenario thinking in a wide array of settings such as the California Teachers Association, the Global Deal Network Initiative, and Tides to communicate across companies, communities and cultures with real traction.
So if we dare to ask not only “what if” but also “what ought to be” we can steer away from a doom and gloom view of a heartless future and instead look out into an array of possibilities and imagine what we want the future to look like. And from this shared vision we can create strategies that might take us there.