Developing Scenarios: Linking Environmental Scanning and Strategic Planning

  by Meredith A. Whiteley, John D. Porter, James L. Morrison, and Nelle Moore  

(reprinted from Whiteley, M. A., Porter, J. D., Morrison, J. L., & Moore, N. (1990). Developing scenarios: Linking environmental scanning and strategic planning. Planning for Higher Education , 18(4), 47-60.)

The 21st century has been the frequent setting for fantastic tales painted by science fiction writers, imaginative comic books, and the movies.  By now, however, planners for the nation's businesses, government, colleges and universities need little reminder that the 21st century is within our strategic-planning horizons.  The nineties are a critical transition decade, frequently characterized by an acceleration of technological, economic, and social change, increasing uncertainty, and growing international interdependency.

Planning in this age of change, transformation, and uncertainty takes on a number of new dimensions, calling for methods that are not mere extrapolations of past trends but that take into consideration how the future win be different, or "discontinuous," from the past.  A central objective of this planning is to place the organization in a strategically flexible position in order to alter its strategies as the contextual conditions of the organization change (Becker and van Doom, 1987; Godet, 1987).

For some time, planners in large businesses, marketing, and the defense and energy industries have recognized the need for non-extrapolative planning methods better suited for a time of rapid change and discontinuity. Many of the new methods they devised are based on group or expert judgment techniques and result in the development of alternative scenarios of the future. A recent "Manager's Guide to Forecasting" notes that, of the many non-extrapolative methods now in use, the scenario method is a popular and strong choice in developing strategies for the future. A 1983 survey of Fortune 1000 companies, for example, found that 35 percent of these large and mostly multinational firms use the Multiple Scenario Analysis technique. This figure more than doubled in the four years between 1977 and 1981 (Georgoff and Murdick, 1986; Godet, 1987; Linneman and Klein, 1983).

A critical goal of the scenario method is to guide managers and executives in the organization in their thinking about the future and the implications of the future for the organization.  The impetus for much of the move away from planning based on extrapolative methods has been the errors of past extrapolative forecasting.  A notable example was the failure of the energy industry to conceive of and plan for the energy crisis of the 1970s.  The principal error of extrapolative planning of the type conducted in the energy industry was the assumption that the future will be a continuation of the past (Hankinson, 1986; Millett and Randles, 1986).

In this article, we discuss a method for developing and writing scenarios for a college or university.  We begin by reviewing the general literature on scenarios; we then detail a scenario development project at Arizona State University.  This project, conducted in 1988-89, was Arizona State University's first institution-wide, futures-based planning and scenario development effort.  The focus of the project for Arizona State University was planning and programming for affirmative action.  An outside consultant facilitated the group-process portion of the project and instructed university staff in scenario development.  Staff in the university's Office of Institutional Analysis then developed and wrote a set of three scenarios to guide the university's affirmative action programming and planning during the decade of the nineties.

What Are Scenarios?

Definitions of scenarios vary.  The person most often attributed with the founding of the scenario method in the early 1950s, Herman Kahn, defined the scenario as "a hypothetical sequence of events constructed for the purpose of focusing attention on causal processes or decision points" (Kahn and Weiner, 1967, p. 6).

More recently, Georgoff and Murdick (1986), in their comparison of forecasting techniques, defined scenarios "as smoothly unfolding narratives that describe an assumed future expressed through a sequence of time frames or snapshots" (p.113).

Scenarios, generally written as a group, provide a range of possible futures.  The optimum number of scenarios and whether the set should include a "most likely" (i.e., steady state) scenario are issues of debate.  The focus of scenarios is on conditions and changes resulting in a future state, identifying threats and opportunities along the way.  While scenarios may include elements of an organization's internal environment, most deal primarily with describing the external context within which the organization operates.  The use of scenarios allows for the integration of both quantifiable economic and demographic data, along with a wider variety of information on technological environments, social attitudes, and political trends not usually incorporated in more traditional forecasting processes.  A critical element of scenario development is specification and analysis of the interrelationships of factors often viewed as discrete entities in other planning methods (Godet, 1987; Hankinson, 1986; Linneman and Klein, 1983; Mendell, 1985; Schnaars, 1987).

Writing Scenarios

Numerous approaches can be taken in writing scenarios, ranging from a single person writing a description of a future situation to the use of an interactive computer model that uses cross-impact analysis to generate outlines of the alternatives (e.g., Becker, 1983; Boucher, 1985; Enzer, 1980; Goldfarb and Huss, 1988; Martino, 1983; Mecca and Adams, 1985; Morrison and Mecca, 1989).

The process of constructing and writing scenarios is often described as something of an art form in which the "artist" (i.e., unsuspecting strategic planner) must weave a number of interrelated events and trends into a coherent picture of the future, complete with strategic options.  However, over the past thirty years of scenario use, both constructing and writing scenarios have evolved into a fairly standardized process with several defined steps:

  • identifying factors expected to affect the forecasting situation or issue

  • postulating sets of plausible future values for these factors

  • combining large numbers of values and interrelationships of these factors into a multiple set of scenarios or alternative futures (Linneman and Klein, 1983; Morrison, Renfro and Boucher, 1984; Schnaars, 1987).

Typically, the scenario development process involves a Delphi or mini-Delphi process to identify systematically the factors expected to affect the organizational planning issue and to establish future values for these factors (Godet, 1987; Morrison, Renfro and Boucher, 1984; Schnaars, 1987).  As Morrison, Renfro, and Boucher note in their Futures Research and the Strategic Planning Process: Implications for Higher Education (1984), "Delphi was designed to obtain consensus forecasts from a group of i experts' on the assumption that many heads are indeed often better than one, an assumption supported by the argument that a group estimate is at least as reliable as that of a randomly chosen expert' (p. 47).

However, as Michael Godet (1987) recently warned, the use of Delphi is limited by the fact that, "the history of forecasting errors shows rather, that we should distrust predominant ideas; the correct viewpoint is often to be found in the minority view" (p. 66).

The product of group identification and estimation of factors thought to affect the future context of an organization's planning is a large set of interrelated variables, each with a number of future data points.  These variables usually include trends with a number of future values as well as events judged on the basis of their probabilities of occurring by a certain future date.

Cross-Impact Analysis

Cross-impact analysis was developed during the 1950s by Olaf Helmer of the Rand Corporation to aid in the organization and assessment of large sets of variables into scenarios.  Cross-impact analysis builds on the convergence of opinions obtained through a Delphi process by considering interactions between trends and events.  For example, consider how substantial curtailment of federally funded student financial aid might affect enrollments or minority student access at public colleges and universities across the country.  Or, in the larger environment, consider how the defaulting of Mexico on loans made by American banks might affect key economic factors in the United States.  Cross-impact analysis considers the interdependence of factors, netting an interpretation grid, or "matrix of discovery," from which alternative scenarios can be developed (Godet, 1987; Minett and Randles, 1986; Schnaars, 1987).

One difficulty in using cross-impact analysis is its complexity.  Even a small group of ten trends and ten events has many potential cross impacts.  Further, the specification of the cross impact can range from a consideration of the direction (+ or -) and degree of impact to include an estimation of the duration of impact or even estimations of the nature/intensity of impact in each year of the planning period.  How much interaction occurs in cross-impact analysis depends on which trends and events are included and the assumptions made concerning the direction and order of the interactions.  Quite simply, getting people in the organization to commit time and effort to specifying cross impacts is extremely difficult.

The advantage of including cross impacts in developing scenarios is that the process of specifying cross impacts illuminates relationships among factors that may not be considered otherwise.  It also enables the planner to visualize a more complete future because reality is a complicated blending of trends and events.

Because of the complications inherent in cross-impact analysis, assumptions must be made to facilitate the process.  Over the past twenty years, several computer algorithms have been developed to simulate cross impacts based on differing methodologies for determining whether or not an event occurs (e.g., Monte Carlo or closed-form cross-impact models).  However, these models tend to be complex and subject to severe limitations because of computer-programming exigencies.

Attempting to perform cross-impact analysis also can be accomplished qualitatively by focusing on a reduced set of trends and events identified in the Delphi process as most critical to the organization's future.  However, regardless of the complexity, the cross impacts of significant trends and events must be considered for the scenarios to become living tools for strategic-planning purposes.  Only through interaction of trends and events does the richness of the scenario emerge.

Scenario Development at Arizona State University

In the spring of 1988, Arizona State University launched a futures-based planning project based on the Delphi judgments of approximately eighty faculty, administrators, and students.  We then used cross-impact analysis to produce data from which we developed three alternative futures: the Stable Future, the Turbulent Future, and the Chaotic Future.  This paper focuses on the development of these three scenarios, using the output generated by cross-impact analysis.

The Setting

Arizona State University is in a dynamic environment not unlike many other colleges and universities, particularly in the growing West.  The next ten years are expected to be as increasingly dynamic.  Coupled with this growth are significant transformations of the metro-Phoenix economy and lifestyle.  Phoenix is, and will continue to be, influenced by changes affecting the United States and world society, including the following:

  • accelerating rate of change

  • increasing domination of technology in business and education  

  • shifting patterns in how and where people work  

  • increasing international interdependency  

  • changing demographics

The Project

The focus of the Arizona State University project was the university's affirmative action program and policies for students, faculty, and staff.  We chose the scenario method to achieve several objectives:

  • to identify trends and potential events in the external environment impacting ASU's affirmative action program  
  • to fink these indicators to affirmative action policy evaluation and program planning  
  • to identify strategic decision points  
  • to provide a participative input mechanism.

In addition, we hoped to provide a vehicle to institutionalize, within the organizational culture of the university, futures-oriented planning.

The Delphi Process

We developed a questionnaire including fifty-four trends and forty-three events.  This set included international trends and events such as the possibility that "a major regional conflict involving U.S. military troops erupts," local trends and events such as "the resale value of homes in the metro Phoenix area," and internal university trends and events such as the "enrollment caps are implemented." We asked participants to do three things:

  • estimate trend levels over the next ten years
  • estimate the probability of an event occurring in the next ten years
  • nominate additional trends and events they felt might affect the university's affirmative action planning.

Using a Delphi approach, we provided participants with group medians and interquartile ranges and asked individuals to re-vote.  This process included a half-day workshop and another round of the Delphi questionnaire.

Estimating Cross Impacts

We estimated the cross impacts of events on events and events on trends.  The objective of cross-impact analysis is to examine systematically the interrelationships in the trends and events set, a process that involves asking how the prior occurrence of a particular event might have an impact on other events or trends in the set.  For example, for the trend "Enrollment at Arizona State University," suppose that the event "AU non-military federal government student financial aid funds are cut by 50 percent" occurs.  We then ask the question, How would the occurrence of this event affect this trend?  Would the enrollments decrease by 10 percent?  Or would enrollments remain unchanged?

With respect to the relationship of events to events, suppose the following event occurs: "A major regional conflict involving U.S. military troops erupts." We ask the question, How will the occurrence of this event affect another event, such as, "A major depression occurs." Would such a conflict decrease the probability of a depression?  If so, by how much?

These cross-impact judgments were elaborated in terms of the direction (+ or -) of the impact in the trend value or event probability, the magnitude of the impact, and the duration of the impact.  Figure 1 illustrates how the trend "level of federal student financial aid" is impacted by three events: major depression, balanced budget amendment, and regional conflict . For example, if a major depression occurs, the estimated impact on student                 financial aid would be a 5 percent decrease in the year following the year in which the depression occurs.  By the beginning of the third year, the effect of a depression on the level of student financial aid, however, was estimated to be zero.  On the other hand, a regional conflict was estimated to increase the level of student financial aid by 2 percent in the year after this event occurs, increasing the trend level by 10 percent five years after occurrence.  By the seventh year, the influence of this event on the trend return was estimated to return to zero.

The values of the cross-impact judgments were then used to adjust the Delphi values for interacting events and interacting events and trends. Figure 2 illustrates the change in trend level showing the effects on level of student financial aid if the three events occur.

The Delphi values, with the cross-impact judgment alterations for impacted events and trends, then became the data used to generate our three scenarios.

Generating Scenarios

In our application of cross-impact analysis, we defined each of our three scenarios - Stable, Turbulent, and Chaotic - in terms of a trigger probability value.  For example, we set the trigger value for the Stable Scenario at a probability level of .80. AR events with a probability of .80 or greater were said to occur in the year their probabilities reached the .80 threshold.  Each event's occurrence then set off a chain of alterations in the values of other impacted events and trends.

We manipulated trigger values to obtain rich data sets for each scenario.  For the Turbulent Scenario, we set the trigger probability value at .60 and set the trigger value for the Chaotic Scenario at .35. The trigger values then produced scenarios defined by the events in the environment.

Writing ASU's Scenarios

We approached the task of writing scenarios from the vantage point of contemporary institutional historians in the year 2000 writing about the university's environment and internal developments during the 1990s.  Our starting point for each scenario was the event history.

In developing scenarios, we established an organizational and conceptual pattern that we followed throughout the scenario writing.  First, we separated our discussion of events and trends.  Events were handled as the driving forces of the scenarios, with trends as the descriptors.  We began our scenarios with a narrative overview, laying out the major events that occurred over the decade of the nineties.  For example, in the Turbulent Scenario, we described the events occurring during the nineties in the following overview:

This report surveys the history of developments affecting Arizona State University and its affirmative action efforts over the decade of the 1990s.  The report chronicles the interplay of broad external forces, as well as the more specific socioeconomic and demographic factors shaping the environment for ASU's recruitment and retention of racial/ethnic minority and female students, faculty, and staff.


Economic depression was the dominant theme of the decade.  Starting in 1994, the depression had wide-ranging impact lasting throughout the rest of the decade.


One effect of the depression was the significant rise in demand for public-funded human services . . . and rising gang activity.....


The Arizona legislature responded to the problems of increased demand and lower revenues by focusing on accountability and increasingly intervening in the operations of state agencies...


Nationwide, demands for increased accountability, educational outcomes, and raised academic achievement standards were major educational policy issues throughout the decade.... As the decade closes, debate continues on the issues of the impact of financial aid cuts on minority student access and the racial bias of new eligibility requirements.

Against this backdrop, Arizona State continued its enrollment growth pattern.

The body of the scenario then dealt with trends, describing their levels and interrelationships over the decade in both narrative and graphics.  To handle the large number of trends in our Delphi process, we organized our scenarios into five subsections: Economics, Demographics, Characteristics of the Workforce and Workplace, Education, and Focus on ASU.  Here we discussed the implications for the organization of the contextual trends described in other sections, setting the stage for strategic policy analysis and planning.

Dealing with Contradiction

Our task was to weave this large group of trends into a coherent image of the decade.  In preparing our scenarios, however, we were struck immediately with a number of trends that appeared to be contradictory and even conflicting.  For example, the trend levels for one scenario indicated a substantial increase in the number of women head-of-household families living below the poverty level-a not surprising, negative picture of women's economic status.  At the same time, however, trend levels for the same scenario painted a more positive picture of substantially more women in graduate programs.  Added to this were a number of other trends, some indicating a worsening in the economic and career status of women, others indicating improvement.

Our first reaction to contradictions of this kind was to check our data.  Finding that our output correctly reflected the Delphi judgment values plus the cross-impact estimations, we then were left to puzzle over issues involved in the economic status of women.  What we concluded was that trend projections in our output might well reflect a widening opportunity gap, separating the futures of those women with marketable skills and education from the futures of those with little skills or training.

Characteristics of the Three Scenarios

The Stable Scenario

The Stable Scenario generally portrayed a steady state future.  Only six events occurred in this scenario, generating few cross-impact alterations of the Delphi estimations of trends.  Three of these events related directly to higher education.  In this scenario, the economy remained relatively stable, with only a slight downward trend in 1994-95.  Demographic trends in the Stable Scenario included a rise in the numbers of the local population living below the poverty level and an increase in the proportion of women head-of-household families.  These and other trends resulted in a dramatic rise in demand for social services.  Characteristics of the Workforce and Workplace reflected the widening opportunity gap for both racial/ethnic minorities and women between those with marketable skills and education and those without.  Throughout the decade, the latter group was portrayed as experiencing an increasing dislocation and economic instability.

Education in the Stable Scenario reflected rising college tuition costs and declining federal financial aid dollars.  While Arizona's racial/ethnic minority student college enrollments rose substantially in this environment, most of this increase was in the state's community colleges.  The state's universities garnered only a small 10 percent of this gain.  In this environment, the Focus on ASU section described how Arizona State University faced the decision of whether to cap enrollment and the question of whether this decision would affect minority student access.

The Turbulent Scenario

The Turbulent Scenario portrayed a decade characterized by an economic recession/depression and its related social problems.  In this decade, fourteen events occurred, including a major depression in 1994, a fossil fuel crisis of 1973-74 proportions in 1999, and legislation passed by the Arizona legislature tying funding increases in education to educational outcomes in 1998.  One result of the economic recession/depression was a dramatic increase in demand on publicly funded social services.  The Arizona legislature responded to increased demand and lower revenues by focusing on accountability and by increasingly intervening in agency operations, including the state's universities.

Demographic trends reflected the economic downturn in a dramatic increase in homelessness and poverty.  Characteristics of the Workforce and Workplace in the Turbulent Scenario reflected the economic depression with an increase in unemployment and a widening of the opportunity gap.  The impact of the depression on the individual, however, was buffered partly by education, experience, and/or skills.  The Focus on ASU section of the scenario included the following narrative:

The effects of the depression on ASU were complex.  While the decline in federal financial aid put the university out of reach for the severely economically disadvantaged, overall enrollment continued to climb during the first half of the decade.  As enrollments climbed, debate centered around the decisions to cap main campus enrollments and establish a second branch campus in the East Valley....

In this environment, ASU's affirmative action hiring tasks became more complex.  On the one hand, the depression improved the size of the pools of racial/ethnic minority and women faculty and management personnel by as much as 33% during the period.  Yet, on the other hand, salaries in the higher education sector became less competitive with the outside marketplace during the decade.  While the effects of the depression on ASU were perhaps less severe than for many higher education institutions, the decline in appropriations and enrollment caps translated into only a few new positions and minimum hiring opportunities.

The Chaotic Scenario

In the Chaotic Scenario, we portrayed the decade of the nineties as a time of dislocation and disruption.  Driving the Chaotic Scenario were nineteen events, including "a major depression occurs," "all nonmilitary federal government student financial aid funds are cut by at least 50 percent," "a major regional conflict involving U.S. military troops erupts," and "the U.S. experiences a dramatic flood of refugees from Mexico, Central, and/or South America." The background section of the scenario described government's response:

Confronted with problems of unprecedented magnitude, state and local governments responded with haphazard and often drastic policies and measures . . . in an environment of dwindling resources for higher education, demands for increased accountability, educational outcomes measures, and raised academic achievement standards were major educational policy responses.

The depression of the Chaotic Scenario was reflected in a number of trends described in the Economics section of the scenario.  The rate of new job creation in Arizona, for example, fell by 20 percent over the decade.  At the same time, business relocation to the Sunbelt fell by 26 percent, and the resale value of homes in metro-Phoenix declined by 27 percent.  Not surprisingly, the social problems described in the Stable and Turbulent Scenarios deepened in the Chaotic nineties.  In the Characteristics of the Workforce and Workplace section of the Chaotic Scenario, we detailed how the worldwide depression in an era of technological revolution brought changes to the workforce by raising the social security retirement age to 70 and changing the distribution of industry in the metro-Phoenix area.  In addition, the depression of the Chaotic Scenario reflected a substantial change in the opportunity gap described in the Stable and Turbulent Scenarios.  While opportunities remained steady throughout this decade for skilled and educated women, opportunities for skilled and educated minorities declined substantially.

The impact of the Chaotic Scenario conditions on education and Arizona State University was catastrophic.  Tuition and funding cuts not only took their toll on the disadvantaged, but also devastated enrollments of whites and racial/ethnic minorities throughout the higher education system.  For Arizona State University, the severe depression conditions of the Chaotic Scenario brought faculty and staff layoffs, a downscaling of programs, and an abandonment of earlier affirmative action goals and strategies.


The development and use of scenarios at Arizona State University was an experiment for us in terms of both (1) the dynamics of the process within our organization and (2) the methodology of writing scenarios.  Our experience developing scenarios taught us a number of lessons that may be helpful to other institutions contemplating the development of scenarios for strategic planning.

Scenarios and the Organization

Significant changes within the university over the course of the project made it difficult for us to assess fully how the process works within the organization.  Early in the project, the associate vice president for student affairs, a key supporter and organizer of the process, took a position as a vice president at another university.  At about the same time, after eight years, the university president announced his retirement.  However, despite the administrative disruption during the project, in the year since the project's completion, we see that several of our organizational objectives were met.  The process of developing and using scenarios accomplished the following:

  • focused and expanded our environmental-scanning efforts
  • provided an input vehicle for a large number of people into the process of thinking about and planning for the future
  • identified strategic decision points for the affirmative action program and highlighted many linkages between programs and the external environment

Writing Scenarios

There is no cookbook for writing scenarios.  While we rather facetiously noted earlier that scenario writing is often referred to as an "art form," it is a highly creative process.  Scenario writing requires a narrative writer unafraid of taking risks, making generalizations, and going out on a limb.  While cross-impact analysis does provide an organized set of data for scenario writing, there is a creatively ambiguous gap still remaining between the data and the written story.  From the vantage point of hindsight, we see that our scenario development and writing would have been aided if we had

  • specified critical factors more clearly.  Our Delphi questionnaire was far from perfect.  In writing the scenarios from the results of this questionnaire, we frequently wished we had stated our factors more clearly.  For example, our questionnaire included a trend we phrased as 'percent of minority teens in Arizona entering the workforce rather than continuing their education." What we meant and should have said was "Arizona minority student high school dropout rate."
  • expanded the national, state, and local ranges of critical factors.  We frequently found the regional range of our factors too limiting, i.e., factors covered either too broad or too narrow an area.  For example, our Delphi questionnaire included the trend "amount of Arizona student financial aid targeted specifically for minorities." We frequently wished in writing our scenarios that we also had this trend specified on a national level so that we could relate it to the trend in all federally funded financial aid.
  • controlled for the negative outlook.  Our scenarios portrayed ranges of "gloom and doom," primarily because of the closed-form, cross-impact methodology used in the project.  This methodology, coupled with specifying a negative event (e.g., "a major economic depression occurs"), overshadowing all other events, produced these negative results.

Planning with Scenarios

In addition, we discovered that development and use of scenarios add a number of dimensions that are particularly important to planning in a time of rapid change:

  • delineating the interrelationships between the organization's internal operations and the external context, thus placing a new emphasis on the organization's continuous environmental scanning.

  • exposing the interrelationships between factors, often in ways not easily apparent, thus challenging the assumptions and traditional thinking of planners and decision makers within the organization.

  • simultaneously focusing and expanding the view of the organization's environmental scanning effort.  A number of factors previously thought to be important are shown to have less importance; at the same time, however, other factors are stressed, and new factors are shown to have high potential impact.

  •   defining critical strategic decision points, providing "lead time" and the opportunity for the organization to take a more proactive position in shaping its future.

  • providing a mechanism for input.  By utilizing group processes and feedback, scenario development facilitates communication both vertically and horizontally throughout the organization.

In sum, our experience at Arizona State University showed us that scenario development is a viable tool, particularly for expanding the thinking of planners and focusing the environmental-scanning effort.  However, the institutionalization of scenario development and use across the organization is, for us, still a question.  If the process can be streamlined and the benefits more directly related to specific decisions, we believe scenarios can make an important contribution in better preparing colleges and universities for a new era that promises to be dramatically different from the past.

Meredith A. Whiteley is a senior researcher, John D. Porter is director, and Nelle Moore is research analyst, all in the Office of Institutional Analysis at Arizona State University.  James L. Morrison is professor of education at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


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