Stories, Scenarios, Exploratory Talk, and Futures Thinking

“The stories we tell ourselves are powerful.  The mind constantly tells itself stories of the future.” Peter Schwartz via The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World

The future can seem like a very scary and non-obvious proposition, especially in today’s world. A world where the present seems almost as unpredictable as the future. Where current conditions find us mired in deepening levels of complexity, intensifying and amplifying the fog that surrounds and insulates our view for the future, often pushing today’s leaders into much more reactive, and far less proactive stance towards the future.

Which, especially in uncertain times, is not the stance or steps best taken.  

Today’s leaders must be willing and competent in engaging their people, their organization, and their stakeholders in the creation of new stories that open up a variety of new possibilities for the future. Today’s leaders need to be able to facilitate conversations that move our people, organizations, and stakeholders openly and effectively into the chasm that stands between, and effectively allow people to grapple with the tensions that exist between reality and imagination. It is in that space and process that we can begin opening up new perspectives, continually iterating and reframing the lens to allow people to see across the spectrum of thinking that exists between moving from a dystopian to a utopian future.

To allow people the space to lean into the uncertainty of current times through the exploration of new stories, new narratives, and new scenarios that open us all up to a much more strategic approach to engaging a diversity of thinking and voices that provide multiple, intentional steps into the future, rather than fixating on one point, one future.

As Peter Schwartz shares in The Art of the Long View“Scenarios are stories about the way the world might turn out tomorrow, stories that can help us recognize and adapt to changing aspects of our present environment.  They form a method for articulating the different pathways that might exist for you tomorrow.” For which he adds, “Too many people react to uncertainty with denial.  They take an unconsciously deterministic view of events.  They take it for granted that some things just can’t and won’t happen.”

In the face of uncertainty, instead of exploring new stories, new scenarios, new narratives, and possibilities for the future, leaders can turn inward, engaging a more insulated approach and focus that can lead to embracing an illusion of a future certainty. Isolating themselves and the organization from the divergence of thinking necessary to move away from the fixed thinking that removes the multiple perspectives necessary to provide a much more open, adaptive and agile mindset towards an often volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous future.

Choosing convergence over divergence. Singular over multiple. Reform over Transform. Incremental over exponential.

Or as is Pierre Wack shares in The Art of the Long View, “he was not interested in predicting the future.  His goal was the liberation of people’s insights.” However and unfortunately, far too often, we find that leaders and organizations are less interested in the liberation of new thinking, new ideas, and new scenarios for the future, as they are in chasing the illusion of certainty down the rabbit hole of predicting the future. Taking their people, organization, and stakeholders with them. As Schwartz infuses, “managers prefer the illusion of certainty to understanding risks and realities.”

To get to the divergence necessary to engage in new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future, will ultimately necessitate leaders creating an environment where we are psychologically safe to cognitively move from the ever-present “presentational” talk and into the often missing concept and modeling of “exploratory” talk in our spaces.

Or as Douglas Barnes shares in Exploring Talk for Learning, Exploratory talk is hesitant and incomplete because it enables the speaker to try out ideas, to hear how they sound, to see what others make of them, to arrange information and ideas into different patterns. The difference between the two functions of talk is that in presentational talk the speaker’s attention is primarily focused on adjusting the language, content and manner to the needs of an audience, and in exploratory talk the speaker is more concerned with sorting out his or her own thoughts.”

Creating space for exploratory talk to exist will allow us to begin to play with this idea of new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future. To engage our people, our organization, and our stakeholders in “sorting out their own thoughts” towards these scenarios for the future. To allow us to move our thinking from plausible futures, to more possible futures.

Or as Douglas Barnes adds, “Another powerful intervention is by creating more space for the informal conversation, by creating events and systems of events through which views can be exchanged outside the pressure of immediate decision making. This type of intervention needs to be carefully designed to ensure that it helps the balance between integration and differentiation, and doesn’t drive the system into one of two pathologies.”

Too often, our spaces are focused on “presentational” talk, quick solutions, convergence, and decision-making. A problem-solved over a problem-explored mindset. Very seldom do we create the environment where “exploratory” talk will allow new ideas and new thinking to be explored, allowing us to discover how new futures are emerging from our conversations as we seek new possibilities. To move past conventional wisdom and into discovery learning. Whereas, “exploratory” talk moves us out of the presentational “final draft” modes of interacting that pervade the majority of our organizational meetings, time and spaces. “Exploratory” talk invites us to lean into new ideas, new thinking, new possibilities, and new futures. “Exploratory” talk provides the opportunity to explore possibilities with information from our context, seeing what can and cannot be done with it.

So, as we consider the idea of engaging “exploratory” talk to engage our people, our organizations, and our stakeholders in new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future, Kees Van Der Heijden adds from his work Scenarios, that this idea of scenario planning for engaging futures thinking should include these crucial elements:

  • The aim of changing mental models of decision makers
  • The need to understand predictability and uncertainty
  • The need to take existing mental models of the decision makers as the starting point
  • Creating a refraining of the issues involved, through the introduction of new perspectives

Which will not only require shifting mindsets for some of those involved in the process, but being very reflective of how not just others, but our own mental models can impede process towards uncovering new possibilities for often undiscovered and unimagined possibilities for the future.

For which Van Der Heijden adds, “Scenarios become meaningful only in the context of an understanding of the “organizational self.” It is in that realization, of coming to terms with our true organizational self, that deeper understandings of our context provides the impetus for engaging the scenarios and scenario planning  that allow our people, our organization, and our stakeholders to truly imagine, through a diversity of voices, multiple paths. Paths that allow our people, our organization, and our stakeholders to lean into the future in a more adaptable and agile manner.

Or as Schwartz injects, “Stories have many advantages. They open people to multiple perspectives, because they allow them to describe how different characters see in events the meaning of those events. Moreover, stories help people cope with complexity.” For which Schwartz adds, “Stories are about meaning; they help explain why things could happen in a certain way. They give order and meaning to events – a crucial aspect of understanding future possibilities.”

As we move into this process, as we create the psychologically safe spaces and environments where new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future can be discovered, and allowed to evolve and emerge, we also have to realize that we have a bias towards rejecting the new. We have a instilled tendency to dismiss those ideas, thinking, and plans that do not match up to our mental models of not only the past and present, but how we believe the world works.

This is something that we will not only need to understand and come to grips with in the process, but will require a deep intentionality towards not dismissing new ideas, thinking, stories, scenarios, and narratives for the future that confound us. In other words, we have to be willing to breathe in the disequilibrium that new creates, especially if we are to truly begin to move into new possibilities and new futures. Especially if we are going to be open to the futures, derived from a variety and divergence of voices, that will begin to emerge from and through the scenario planning process.

Especially, if we are going to be truly open and willing to determine and explore new futures for our people, our organizations, and our stakeholders.

“To operate in an uncertain world, people needed to be able to reperceive – to question their assumptions about the way the world works, so that they could see the world more clearly. The purpose of scenarios is to help yourself change your view of reality – to match it up more closely with reality as it is, and reality as it is going to be.” “The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future.”  -Peter Schwartz via The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World


In-Between Stories: Old World vs. New World

“It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The Old Story – the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it – is not functioning properly, and we have not learned the New Story.”  -Thomas Berry via Creating Better Futures

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity (VUCA) become amplified in those environments where we find ourselves in between stories. Before a new narrative surfaces. Before a new vision for the future is realized. In that space where “old world” and “new world” clash, but before a victor emerges and a direction is determined.

Or as put forth in The Changing Face of Modern Leadership, “We lead and live in tense and volatile times, amidst a collision of “old world” meets “new world” thinking. It can be seen as a perplexing and disorienting time for those leaders who have comfortably remained within and relied upon a neat and orderly way of viewing our world and our organizations.”  

A time and space that can and will create both individual and organizational disequilibrium, especially as the complexity of change forces explodes forth in a relentless and much more accelerated manner. Dismantling our mental models of the past, in order to create room for new visions of the future.

Which will be necessary under the escalating rise in dilemmas and adaptive challenges that will test our leaders and stretch our organizations, often to their capacity. Requiring leaders to deepen their own capacity and competency for better understanding these forces, along with a deepening resiliency towards keeping our individuals, organizations and systems from recoiling themselves back into the perceived safety of the past, of the known, of what existed before change arrived.

Which is an ongoing and formidable task in its own right.

What we will have to realize in moving forward, is that there will not just be one point, one idea, one narrative that can and will lead us into the future. We will have to change our thinking and our discussions towards our future thinking. Or as Eugene Eubanks, Ralph Parish, and Dianne Smith share in Changing the Discourse in Schools, we will have to move from Discourse I to Discourse II thinking.

For example, here are a few of the discourse shifts they share:

Moving from singular truths to multiple stories; from the change process to the desired circumstances; from improving what exists to changing something significant; from symptoms to causes; from the familiar to the uncomfortable; from information transfer to knowledge creation; and from reproduction to transformation.

Which will not only require the ongoing deconstructing and reconstructing of our mental models, but shifts and reframes in our thinking and mindset.

Which is why a variety of narratives, or scenarios will be necessary for moving us and our organizations more relevantly into the future. And not only for the reason that the future is not predictable and cannot and will not be predicted, but for the very fact that it has become much more non-obvious in its direction and the speed and agility in which it now allows itself to shift and change. Remaining agile and adaptable to the future will require planning for a variety of scenarios, a variety of narratives, from today’s leaders and organizations. Or as Jay Ogilvy shares in Creating Better Futures, “Therefore, in thinking ahead over the long term, as a sense of responsibility demands, we need to think about several possible futures, not just one. We need a strategy for all seasons, not just one.”

Creating a variety of scenarios for the future will not only necessitate a variety of perspectives, and a diversity of thinking, but a score of voices and a multiplicity of stakeholders, all aspiring to a better future.

“Fresh thinking about the future calls for alternative scenarios based on new assumptions that differ from the old, not just quantitatively but qualitatively. A coherent set of qualitatively new assumptions amounts to a new paradigm, a new way of looking at something we thought we knew.”  -Jay Ogilvy via Creating Better Futures