Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Scenario Planning and me. A short personal history.

I have been fascinated by scenario planning for quite a few years – actually for most of my adult life. This is because I grew up in apartheid South Africa: and so was briefly exposed to the power of scenario planning. As were most South Africans of my age.

A bit of history might be in order: trying to peer into the future has always been a human fascination. Way back when we used extispicy. We also tried using the position of the stars at birth, the length of creases in a hand, and more recently, how tea leaves fall in the bottom of a tea cup. The list of things humans have done to divine the future is very, very, long.

In the 50's various people tried to put the art of forecasting the future onto a more scientific footing. In the 70's Shell managed to profit handsomely in the oil crunch – and ascribed their success to their scenario planning, built on these initial attempts to forecast the future.

Other companies were dazzled by this, and soon a lot of them were running their own scenario planning groups. Anglo American Corporation, a huge South African mining conglomerate, bought into the whole process in a major way.

Amongst the many scenario's they produced, was a set that predicted two possible futures for South Africa: a “high road” resulting in peace, prosperity and stability, or a “low road”, where the country descended slowly into a spiral of ever increasing conflict and brutality.

So alarmed were they by the prospect of the “low road” that they created a travelling road show, that went from town to town, fronted by the head of their scenario planning division, a Mr. Clem Sunter. Those who attended were given an overview of scenario planning, it's many successes till that point in time, and then walked through each of the two possible futures for South Africa. In excruciating detail.

The torch of newsprint was shone on the road show. It was newsworthy, after all. Editors editorialised, columnists columnised, and opinion pieces were opined. Letters were written, politicians gave speeches. For quite a few months fierce debate raged.

I lived in a small town, and so by the time the road show hit our city the controversy was at its height. The town hall was packed. Mr Sunter didn't disappoint: the show was put together very well, and by the time he was finished I think that most of of the audience felt that the “low road” was a very bad future to look forward to.

As did the apartheid regime – they asked for a private viewing and asked many questions. A few months later they started to unwind the whole apartheid edifice.

Where the two related? I can't say. But from my point of view it would seem that scenario planning had certainly played a key role in shaping the future of South Africa.

So it came as quite some surprise to me when I left South Africa that no one else in the world seemed to know very much about the power of scenario planning. Actually, most people knew nothing of scenario planning!

Every now and then I would turn to the web to see if I could find out more. But what I got was a confusing mass of information that obscured rather than revealed. Being a very busy software developer with a family I never had the time to pull at the end of the information and to find out any more about scenario planning, fascinated though I was.
Till now. I have got my hands on a copy of “Games Foxes Play: Planning for Extraordinary Times” by Chantell Ilbury and one Clem Sunter. A book that claims to transform scenario planning from “an esoteric discipline” to a “practical model” that allows “intense strategic conversation”.

It's been a fun read. I think I'd like to try to work through a very high level scenario planning exercise to get a feel for it. Now I just have to find my conversational partners...

1 comment:

Daniel said...

I think Clem Sunter is brilliant and have been to a few of his talks. at one of them (in about 2006) he talked about his then-recent experiences working with Chinese government, and concluded that China would take over from the US as the dominant superpower. So far everything he said is running right on track. He's got a lot of reading available on his blog www.mindofafox.com. I've also got his book "Socrates and the fox" which - you have reminded me - it is time to read again.