Scenario Thinking: Orient (Phase One)

Over the next few posts I will be briefly summarizing how to do Scenario Thinking.  They will not be super compelling but they will be concise summaries serving as a quick and accessible reference.

What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits has outlined five basic phases (Orient, Explore, Synthesis, Act, Monitor) to be used as a guide and can be easily adapted to better suit your context.

Phase One: Orient

The scenario planning process begins by determining the issue/question to be explored.  Working through the Orient phase will result in a clearly articulated issue/question to which all other scenario thinking phases will be tethered.

Begin by determining the time horizon (5 yrs., 10 yrs., 20 yrs.) for the scenario thinking initiative.  Next, conduct one-on-one interviews with organizational decision-makers and external thought leaders to identify organizational challenges.  Be sure to keep the questions broad and open ended to reveal the underlying assumptions and hidden beliefs people have.

Looking for patterns in your interviews will reveal the question/issue to be addressed throughout the rest of the scenario thinking process.   It should be articulated as objectively as possible and cover the same time horizon used in the interviews.  Two possible examples below.

Over the next “x” years, should the organization pursue a path towards growth?

Over the next “x” years, which initiatives/programs/projects should the organization shed in order to be more agile?


Can you think of three possible interview questions?  Now put the questions through the liminal thinking lens.  Will they reveal the interviewee’s beliefs and needs?  

Your Situation Is Ideal for Scenario Thinking If….

When I first began reading about scenario thinking I was equal parts intrigued and skeptical.  If resources are already stretched and people are already too busy, how does an organization allow itself the time and space to ensure the initiative has a chance at success?

For successful scenario thinking, the authors of What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits recommend the organization be:

  • oriented towards learning by engaging in authentic conversations about its warts and wonders.
  • comfortable with not being comfortable by intentionally and constantly acquainting itself with change
  • open to hearing divergent perspectives to unlock the otherwise unrealized opportunities or mitigate previously unnoticed threats.
  • comfortable with implementing change where and when needed.
  • lead by someone who understands and champions the scenario thinking process including the implementation of its discoveries.
  • willing to commit the resources needed to do the work.

The authors also supplied an excellent initial litmus test you can use to determine organizational readiness for scenario thinking (What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits, p.21)

Do not use scenario thinking when…

  • the problem you are dealing with is not central to your organizational strategy and/or your problem and solution are clear.
  • the outcome is largely predetermined due to internal or external factors.
  • the leadership want to maintain the status quo.
  • there is too much urgency to step back for a reflective and creative conversation.
  • your desired outcomes are poorly aligned with your dedicated resources.

Your situation is ideal for scenario thinking if….

  • you are dealing with a strategic issue and the solution is unclear.
  • you are working in a highly uncertain environment.
  • there is leadership support for the scenario thinking process.
  • your organization is open to change and dialogue.
  • you can attract the resources necessary for a successful initiative.

Michael Quinn Patton Visits Edmonton

Michael Quinn Patton, a leading influencer and thinker in the realm of evaluation, was recently in Edmonton to give a presentation on Developmental Evaluation.  The day was packed to the rafters with learning but here a few things I found most salient.

The Evaluation Gap

The way programs are experienced is often disconnected from how they are evaluated.  Logic models are designed to emphasize the way the program is experienced by the individual and neglects how the program is experienced by the group.  In particular, relationships and social capital generated as a group is not usually a measurable outcome articulated in the logic model.  How well the program works for the group can be overlooked by how well the program worked for the individual in the group.

Lessons vs. Lessons Learned

Lessons are knowledge.  Lessons Learned are actions based on the new knowledge.

Formative vs. Summative vs. Developmental

Evaluation in a reasonably predictable context using previously tested models occurs formatively and summatively.  Formative assesses project/program progress as it unfolds.  Summative assesses the overall performance of the project/program to determine if it will be continued or altered.  It answers the question; How do we improve the model?

Evaluation in a dynamic, unpredictable context without previously tested models requires a more flexible, iterative approach.  Developmental evaluation is a constant process of trying various approaches and learning lessons via case-based reflective practice.  It answers the question; How do we change what is occurring?


A couple other Patton nuggets from the day:

“Emergence is when people find each other and opportunities emerge from the connection”

“You can have specific outcomes and targets only when you know how to produce them”