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SCENARIO BUILDING: The Sociovision Approach

"maximizing depth"

approach offered by Joop De Vries, Sociovision
14 November 2001 (as described by W. Schultz)


Let us begin by considering a working definition of "scenario:"  in Royal Dutch Shell, scenario building meant "thinking the unthinkable" -- harnessing and mobilizing ideas that are not obvious to all (Note:  this is very similar to Jim Dator's First Law of Political Futuristics, "any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.").  Shell generally uses only two -- at the most, three -- scenarios at a time.  This is because people must be able to keep all the scenarios in mind constantly as a context for discussion and decision-making.

The benefits of scenario building rest not in the completed scenarios, but in the process of development itself, and in the subsequent common language participants in the process share:  they can use this common language as a tool to explore the benefits ,costs, and trade-offs of any potential decision, initiative, or plan.  More specifically, they can consider the short-term trade-offs in comparison to long-term trade-offs; the scenario building process creates a language to facilitate that comparison.  Scenario building also clarifies priorities in considering trade-offs under very different possible future conditions.

For strategic thinking, decision-makers are best advised to build scenarios around specific issues, programs, products, or events.  While we can build scenarios for the future of society in general, it is a very elaborate, time-consuming process.  Because of the breadth of descriptors and variables required to describe different possible outcomes for society as a whole, the process requires re-iterative data-gathering and brainstorming to cover the necessarily larger set of actors and structures involved.


This is a very organic, evolutionary scenario building process, built on a dialogue focussed by eight basic questions.

1)    What is the significant issue, program, product, or event for which we wish to explore alternative outcomes and their implications?  Write down the focal issue.

2)    Map the present:  what structures, feelings, reactions, values are on participants' mental maps right now with regard to the issue?

3)    Ask, "what next?"  What could be potential outcomes of this issue, program, product, or event?  State the possible outcomes in a few words:  a short, vivid phrase.  Let participants spend some time exploring alternative possible outcomes, bearing in mind that those alternatives will in many cases contradict or exclude others on the list.  This is the space in which to consider not only likely outcomes, but also unthinkable ones.

4)    Let participants sit back and consider the list for a few moments.  Identify those outcomes that indicate opposite possibilities, or a branching point in the evolution of impacts and outcomes.  Focus on the branching points of particular interest strategically, or that the group feels represents a critical pattern worth exploring.

5)    Cluster elements on the list of potential outcomes that are logically consistent with the main "branches" you have identified.

6)    For each "branch," look for a phrase that sums up or identifies the deepest, most pervasive structure defining that branch of outcomes; that phrase is your scenario title.

7)    Ask, with regard to each of your “branches” or scenarios, “what does this mean for the main players involved in this story?”

8)    Finally, ask what your organization or company, and the people in it, would do in the environment described by each scenario:  how would your company deal with the conditions in that possible future?


  1. Event:  the tragedy of September 11th.
  2. Present mental “structures” or mental map of the issue:
    • Sorrow
    • Fear
    • Hatred
    • Insecurity
    • Paranoia
    • Cocooning at home; less travel
    • Wonder; curiosity – what mindset lets someone do such a thing?
    • Curiosity – what is this culture, this religion, relatively unfamiliar to the West?
    • Inequity – global divisions
    • Etc.
  3. What next? What are some potential outcomes?
    • Internal ethnic conflicts in developed countries
    • Insecurity – unknown threats surfacing in the future
    • Business as usual
    • Escalation
    • New world order
    • US isolationist, closes doors, vs.
    • US opens up, joins in
    • Spiritually, religious polarization, vs.
    • New global ecumenism
    • Dialogue, diplomacy
    • Islam identity clarified
    • Consolidate, rejuvenate Islam
  4. Does this list seem to indicate any branching points that you want to explore?  E.g.,
    • US isolationist vs. US opening up;
    • Religious polarization vs. global ecumenism;
    • Escalation of violence vs. dialogue and diplomacy
    • Business as usual vs. a new world order.
  5. Using the rule of logical consistency, cluster other outcomes on the list with the major branch to which they relate the most, e.g.,
    • “Business as usual:”  escalation of violence, internal ethnic conflicts in developed countries as well as continued inequities in global economic system feed simmering tensions and unrest socially and economically – US grows more isolationist; vs.
    •  “Islamic identity:”  a new world order, with an Islam consolidated and rejuvenated, tensions settled by dialogue and diplomacy which allow multiple actors to succeed in the international economic arena, and international relations marked by the US opening up, joining in the discussion and action on major global concerns, and a new global ecumenism.

NOTE:  it may almost be considered a “base case” outcome that one faction will wish to push ahead in the traditional way, viewing any critical issue as a “win-lose” situation, where there can be only one winner.  Opposing this is a transformative pattern characterized by multiple actors, multiple regions, working on critical issues via dialogue.  Some of the commonest patterns we see are distinguished by the number of key players:  unipolar, bipolar, multipolar.

  1. What phrase highlights the deepest structures of each scenario?  Do “Business as Usual” and “Islamic Identity” focus on the essential characteristics defining and distinguishing these two sets of outcomes?
  2. What would “Business as Usual” mean for the US government?  Companies and investors in the US?  European governments and financial institutions?  The Islamic world?  Asia?  How would conditions and decision environments for all of those actors change in the context of the “Islamic Identity” scenario?
  3. What would your company or organization change about its current strategies, partners, subsidiaries, clients, markets, product line, financing, or long-term planning, given the conditions of each scenario?

Remember, this process is meant to produce extended conversations that explore in depth not only the potential changes in overt political and economic structures, but also changes in feelings, values, and worldviews among populations relevant to your organization.  The end result of this structured dialogue should be the common language about possible alternative futures that will become part of the planning shorthand in your organizational culture.

> Tools > Scenario Building > Schultz / Manoa | Schwartz / GBN | de Vries / Sociovision | Harman Fan

15 February 2003. Email IF.
Copyright © 2003, Wendy L. Schultz
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