Scenario Thinking: Act and Monitor (Phase Four/Five)

Scenario thinking has five basic phases as outlined in What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits.
  • Phase One (Orient) –  creates a clearly articulated issue/question
  • Phase Two (Explore) –  identifies all driving forces.
  • Phase Three (Synthesize) – prioritizes driving forces
  • Phase Four (Act) – crafts the strategic agenda
  • Phase Five (Monitor) – signals the need for tweaks to the strategic agenda  
 
 

Act

Gather the scenario frameworks from the Synthesize phase and fully immerse yourself in their narratives.  Imagine that the future circumstances of each scenario are really occurring and ask yourself:

  • What actions would I take today to prepare?
  • What could I do to increase the likelihood that this scenario will come true?
  • What could I do to decrease the likelihood that this scenario will come true?

Answering the questions will reveal scenario implications for each scenario.  If the scenario describes a future in which there is reduced government funding and a weak economy, it is safe to deduce that one implication would result in less funding for the organization.  It may also expedite innovative approaches the organization has wanted the opportunity to explore as another possible implication.

Your strategic agenda will start to emerge as you reflect on the implications of each scenario.

Begin by searching for implications common to all scenarios because they represent the lowest level of risk.  The same implication present in each scenario will make it most likely to come true in the future.  One implication likely to be present in all scenarios for a not-for-profit organization is funding shortfalls regardless of government funding or the strength of the economy.  Basing your strategy on funding shortfalls is fairly safe.

Relying on a scenario implication that is singularly different from other scenarios represents the highest level of risk because there is a lower likelihood that it will come true.   Basing your strategy on the future outcome of an election is risky for the organization.

“The test of a good set of scenarios is not whether in the end it turns out to portray the future accurately but whether it enables an organization to learn, adapt and take effective action.” (P.30, What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits)

 

Monitor

Monitoring the strategic agenda is often the stage that gets sidelined by the day-to-day routine of the organization.   Monitoring involves watching for signals indicating changes in the environment potentially impacting the organization and its strategic agenda. 

The key to the Monitor phase is selecting the correct signals to watch by identifying a set of ‘leading indicators’They should contain a mix of qualitative and quantitative information from the local, national and international contexts.  Then take some time to make adjustments to your strategic agenda.

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.

4 Reasons to Think in Scenarios

As many of you know I have the honor of sitting on the board for the Skills Society.  An honor because of what they do and who they support but also because I come in contact with some amazing people and ideas.  Recently we were asked to read What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits.  

Although scenario thinking has been around for decades, its recent use has become increasingly essential in our ever-changing context.  And if you’re hoping the tidal wave of change will soon pass, you will be disappointed. Most of the literature I have been reading (Inc.com, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly, Twist Image) indicates the pace of change will only accelerate and consequently become more unpredictable.

As an Executive Director for a not-for-profit organization, how do you determine a strategic direction when the destination you choose today could disappear tomorrow?

Scenario thinking seems to offer a lifeline for our beleaguered Executive Directors because it forces us from the comfort of traditional strategic planning and broadens our thinking beyond the insular confines the status quo.  By encouraging us to think about the present through the prisms of multiple scenarios, it reveals previously unidentified threats and opportunities for the organization.

To be clear, we are not trying to predict the future. Predicting the future makes you a futurist not a strategist.  We are not trying to predict who will win the election, rather we are trying to plan for many possible winners and how it could impact the work being done by the organization.

“Ultimately, the point of scenario thinking is not to write stories of the future.  Rather, it is to arrive at a deeper understanding of the world in which your organization operates, and to use that understanding to inform your strategy and improve your ability to make better decisions today and in the future ” p.9

As a process, scenario planning is outside-in.  It begins by identifying driving forces of the broader environmental context external to the organization (technological, social, economic, political, environmental). At Skills we are constantly having conversations about the threats and opportunities inherent in shifts in the provincial economy.

Next, scenario thinking examines the working environment external to the organization (clients, stakeholders, partners, funders, constituents, customers, competitors, regulators).   One consideration Skills is tracking is the shifting demographics of the clients we serve and the threats and opportunities it could present for service delivery.

Finally, it moves to considering the internal organizational conditions. This means having conversations about ways in which external forces (broader environmental context and working conditions) could influence the organization and how it functions internally.  For Skills, this requires discussions about how the economic realities and client demographics could effect the way the organization delivers services to its clients.

Incidentally, scenario thinking can also be done in the same way for issues or complex problems.

 

Four Reasons to Think in Scenarios

Setting Strategic Direction: develops a strategic plan that accounts for possible changes in the environment outside the organization or tests your current strategic plan.

Catalyzing Bold Action: inspires and nudges the organization to take bold actions pushing beyond assumptions that reinforce the status quo by …rehearsing diverse and provocative future possibilities-both desirable scenarios you would like to help create and dark scenarios that generate a sense of urgency” p.16

Accelerate Collaborative Learning: uncovers otherwise inconceivable solutions by creating a space for the organization to learn from diverse perspectives.

Alignment and Visioning: forges new relationships by creating a shared understanding of the complexity of the problem resulting in new approaches.

 

Do your own Outside-in thinking:  

  1. To begin, think of an issue that you feel strongly about fixing but society has not successfully addressed (e.g. poverty, animal abuse, education for gifted students, mental health, addiction, ….)
  2. Draw a column on the left side of the page.  Identify the technological, social, economic, political, and environmental factors in the contextual environment that impact your issue (not meant to be an exhaustive list – just whatever comes to mind).
  3. Draw another column in the center of the page.  Identify the factors (clients, stakeholders, partners, funders, constituents, customers, competitors, regulators) in the working environment that impact your issue (again,  just whatever comes to mind).
  4. Draw a third column on the right and leave it blank.
  5. This is where the activity gets interesting!!  Find someone that has the same level of interest in the issue you have a chosen but you know their approach is quite different from yours. Have them fill in the first two columns for themselves.
  6. Go out for a coffee or a lunch with the other person and fill in the final column together.  Do not vet or debate the ideas- just fill them in together.
  7. Next, notice and discuss where your ideas converge and diverge.  The most important revelations will come from the conversations around where your ideas diverge the greatest.  
  8. Make note of any new ideas or approaches emerging from your conversation.

    Congratulations, you have just done outside-in thinking!!

Liminal Principles in Practice

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I like ideas that can be incorporated into my practice….with minimal effort.  I don’t have great success when I’m given a 350 page textbook and need a degree in advanced science to decipher its contents.  Instead I like books that are accessible and practical.  Gray’s book has been a joy to read and I encourage all of my readers to try to locate a copy. 

My past few posts have explored the first part of the book outlining the six principles of Liminal Thinking.  The second part of the book explores the nine practices of a liminal thinker.  Below are three I found most compelling.

Create safe space.  Have you ever been confronted by a behavior you couldn’t even begin to understand?  Gray would say it’s because the person has an unmet emotional need they don’t feel they can share because it isn’t safe.  To get others to reveal their needs and beliefs (true motivations for their actions), we need to create a safe space in which people are able to break from their self-sealing logic and belief bubble.

Triangulate and validate.  Have you ever been so sure of something that later turned out to be wrong?  Practicing Liminal Thinking means investigating as many differing perspectives as possible regardless of how obviously wrong they may seem.   “If you think something is obvious, that’s an idea that bears closer examination.” (P.95, Liminal Thinking)

Make sense with stories. I’ve always believed in the power of the narrative but just never had the words to explain it until now.   Asking someone to share their story is a way of telling them that their experiences are worth learning from.  “When someone tells you a story, they are sharing an experience and expressing their beliefs about that experience at the same time” (p.125, Liminal Thinking).

This brings my series on Liminal Thinking to a close.

The Disgruntled Mentee

The Edmonton Region Immigrant Employment Council (ERIEC) administers a mentorship program for immigrant professionals unfamiliar with the skills required to acquire professional employment in their fields of expertise in Alberta.

I mentor in this program as often as my schedule will allow because I selfishly enjoy hearing about the journeys people take to arrive in Edmonton.  For mentees, access to mentors can expedite their job search by helping with their resumes, cover letters, interviews and networking.  However, one skill that consistently causes resistance and distress amongst mentees, is the need to differentiate themselves by cultivating a personal brand.   

I had one mentoring experience in which the mentee repeatedly dodged activities related to personal branding.  After a few conversations, I found that he was not comfortable differentiating himself from everyone else.  He told me “the nail that sticks up is the one that gets hammered down”. It simply felt wrong to him.

Although there are informative intercultural lenses from which to explain his feeling of ‘wrongness’, using the liminal thinking lens, Gray would say personal branding challenges his governing belief about how a reputable, credible, honourable, and professional person should act.  

“A belief that is deeply tied to identity and feelings of self-worth is called a governing belief” (p.53, Liminal Thinking)

But it still leaves the problem.  To increase the likelihood that my mentee would get a job in his field of expertise in the Canadian labour market, he would need to understand the importance of ‘being the nail that sticks up‘…..at least a little.

This would require altering his governing belief that personal branding activities were shameful, changing how he sees himself and inevitably how all the people in his life see him.  If it sounds formidable and transformational, it’s because it is.  But it helps explain why, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, people refuse to change.

In liminal thinking terms, governing beliefs are the foundation for the bubbles of belief a group uses to navigate and survive reality together.  Being the member of the group to challenge a governing belief can jeopardize relationships, making them risky to discuss and very difficult to change.  But being a liminal thinker means having the awareness to identify your governing beliefs and the courage to confront them.  

Over time my mentee began building a personal brand because he was seeing that he was having limited success without it.  No matter how many resumes he sent, he still received few requests for interviews.  Circumstances forced him to challenge his governing belief. Ultimately, it lead to forging new relationships while letting others go.  He was co-creating a new reality with a new group.  

To shed light on your governing beliefs Gray has an excellent exercise   Begin by writing down the beliefs that make you the person you are and form the foundation for all the choices (large and small) in your life. Then sit down with a person you trust, and ask them to tell you what they think your governing belief(s) are.  Comparing notes will lead to a lively and revealing conversation.

 

Liminal Thinking Principle #6:  “Beliefs are tied to identity.  Governing beliefs, which form the basis for other beliefs, are the most difficult to change, because they are tied to personal identity and feelings of self-worth. You can’t change governing beliefs without changing yourself.” (p.57, Liminal Thinking)

The Way We’ve Always Done It

How do you feel when you start a new position with a new team?   For me it has always been a mix of excitement and awkwardness.  Mostly awkwardness. Because I don’t know the unwritten rules of the place and I don’t want to make an embarrassing faux pas on my first few days.

To explain this, Gray would say the team I am joining has a shared set of beliefs they use to navigate their work relationships called the bubble of belief.  Beliefs I do not yet possess because I don’t have their shared experience of working together.  The kitchen is a perfect example.  On one occasion before attending a meeting,  I had gone to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.  I picked a cup from the cupboard and boiled water like I have thousands of times.   Unfortunately I turned up to the meeting using the boss’s favorite cup.  I could feel a tremor of discomfort when I entered the room because everyone else knew not to use that cup.

Bubbles of belief exist in every corner of our lived experience.  They are shared maps that groups use to navigate relationships in the reality they co-create.  Unfortunately, they are maps that occasionally lead us over a cliff too.

Have you ever heard this phrase at work “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it”?  

It’s always been done that way and continues to be done that way because “….new information from outside the bubble of belief is discounted, or distorted, because it conflicts with the version of reality that exists inside the bubble” (p.45, Liminal Thinking).  Gray calls this self-sealing logic.  There are many examples of how this type of thinking has had disastrous effects. Blackberry couldn’t see past the keyboard design while Apple gobbled up their market share with the touchscreen.  In 2000, the Blockbuster CEO passed up the opportunity to purchase Netflix for $ 50 million saying it was a niche company.  Netflix is now worth more than $30 billion. I wonder how many times these words were uttered in the Northlands boardroom while Katz busily outmaneuvered them.

Why is it so difficult for people to see past their self-sealing belief bubbles?

Gray points out that people evaluate a new idea in two ways; internally (does it make sense?) and externally (can I test it?).  Most new ideas fail to get past the internal test because they challenge the bubble of belief and so they automatically do not make sense and therefore do not need to be tested.  A video streaming service must have seemed impossible to the CEO of the most successful video rental business so therefore there is no need to test what it’s potential could be.

Think back to a time when you came forward with a fantastic, innovative, can’t miss new idea that was dismissed by the group.  Was the groups defending its’ bubble of belief?  Do you think your new idea challenged group identity?

Conversely, take a minute and think about what happens when your beliefs are challenged.  How do you defend them?

 

Liminal Thinking Principle 5:”Beliefs defend themselves.  Beliefs are unconsciously by a bubble of self-sealing logic, which maintains them even when they are invalid, to protect personal identity and self-worth.” (P. 49, Liminal Thinking)

How Our Beliefs Limit Us

Last Friday, my wife and I ventured into downtown. You could tell it was game night.  People were clad in their orange and blue on the LRT, in the streets and in the restaurants.   As it happened we would be joining the crowds as the Oilers took on the Nashville Predators.  When describing the experience of attending the game to friends and family I find myself saying “It was exciting for an Oilers game”.  Which really means “In the past, most of the excitement at an Oilers game came from the concession stands, so I’m not ready to believe they have a legitimate chance at winning a game”.

It’s a strange belief to maintain.  The Oilers have a new Stanley Cup winning General Manager (Peter Chiarelli), a tested, stable coaching staff (Todd McLellan), the brightest player to enter the game since Sidney Crosby(Connor McDavid), numerous other amazing young players (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Adam Larrson, Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl), quality free agent signings (Milan Lucic), a reliable goaltender (Cam Talbot) and a fabulous new arena. The Oilers have a chance to make the playoffs this year rather than being mathematically eliminated by December.   However, in the face of such evidence, I continue to believe they have a greater chance of losing then they do of winning.

Gray calls this a limiting belief.  It’s a belief that limits my ability to see other possibilities.  I can’t believe the Oilers could be a winning team because I still believe they are a losing team.

Being a liminal thinker requires us to identify our limiting beliefs and look beyond them to the possibilities they obscure from our view.

What beliefs do you have about yourself that limit your potential?  What beliefs do you have about others that could be limiting their potential?

 

Liminal Thinking Principle 4: Beliefs create blind spots.  Beliefs are tools for thinking and provide rules for action, but they can also create artificial constraints that blind you to valid possibilities” (p.39, Liminal Thinking)