Ian Wilson
Wolf Enterprises

In an earlier article for On the Horizon (Wilson, 1994), I argued that educational institutions, like corporations, need to engage in strategic management as they struggle to redefine themselves in new roles and changing conditions. To assist them in this change process, I also suggested that schools, colleges, and universities can benefit from two planning tools developed in the corporate sector: strategic vision and scenario planning. In this article I want to explore more fully the second of these planning tools—scenario planning—because it is, I firmly believe, key to successful strategic management in these uncertain times, and key to envisioning and creating a "new future" for educational organizations.

Let me, then, briefly address four questions: What are scenarios? Why are they needed? How do we develop them? How can we use them?

What Are Scenarios?

The term "scenario" is taken from the world of theater and film, and refers to a brief synopsis of the plot of a play or movie. In a planning context, scenarios can be described most simply, in colloquial terms, as "stories of possible futures that the organization might encounter." Scenarios are graphic and dynamic, revealing the flow of an evolving future. They are holistic, combining social, technological, economic, environmental, and political trends and events, the qualitative as well as the quantitative. They focus our attention on the "branching points" of the future, the potential contingencies and discontinuities.

By basing decisions on alternative futures and by testing planned actions against the different conditions these scenarios present, we are better able to prepare for uncertainty, and to ensure that our decisions are as resilient and flexible as possible, to deal with contingencies that we might deem "unthinkable."

Why Are Scenarios Needed?

We have all been educated to believe that if we are to make decisions about the future of an organization, we must first know what the future the organization will have to deal with will be like.

On the face if it, that is a reasonable proposition. Yet in reality we are asking for the impossible—certainty and predictability in an uncertain world. The further out the horizon of forecasting, the more unreasonable is the demand. But, even for the shorter term, the expectation of precision is a snare and a delusion.

In a profound sense, the future is unknowable. Yet, in a relative sense some things are predictable. We can do a respectable job of "sensing" the basic dynamics of the future and the alternative courses they might take. Building on this foundation, scenarios steer us on a middle course between a misguided reliance on prediction and a despairing belief that we can do nothing to envision the future.

How Do You Develop Scenarios?

One way to develop scenarios is to turn the job over to a brilliant futurist or an imaginative planner to sketch out alternative possible futures that our planning should consider. (Jay Ogilvy did exactly that for us in two earlier issues of On the Horizon. [1994, April/May; 1994, June/July].) The fundamental problem with this approach, however appealing it might be, is that the decision-makers—those who will ultimately use the scenarios—do not "own" them: the scenarios remain forever the product of someone else's thinking, and so lack the credibility necessary for them to become the basis for action.

To deal with this problem, we developed, while I was at SRI International, an approach that (a) is a structured blending of rationality and intuition, and (b) relies on decision-makers themselves to develop their own scenarios. In this way we found, in a wide variety of organizations, corporate and non-profit alike, that we could build into the process the highest degree of understanding and commitment to use the scenarios.

The approach utilizes a relatively simple six-step process (See Schematic):

Step l: Organizational Decision(s). The process starts, not by plunging into a description of the future, but rather by clarifying the strategic decisions that we are faced with, and that the scenarios should help us address. The decision can be as broad as the strategic future of the organization (e.g., "What vision of our future school/university should we pursue?) or as specific as the development of a new program (e.g., "Should we use electronic communications networks to promote individualized, off-campus/at-home educational programs?"). Clarifying the "decision focus" of the whole process is doubly important. In the first place, it reminds us that scenarios are not an end in themselves: they are a means to help us make better strategic decisions. Secondly, they must be grounded in our specific planning needs. A tight focus will prevent the scenarios from drifting into broad generalizations about the future of our society, thereby losing their implications for our particular organization.

Step 2: Key Decision Factors. Having thought through the strategic decision we want to make, we need then to examine the key decision factors—the main things we would like to know about the future in order to make our decision." Granted that we cannot actually know the future, it would still be helpful if we had some "fix" on, say, potential student population, availability of funding, or the state of information technology in the year 2000 (or whenever our planning horizon is). Once again, clarifying in our minds what the essential decision factors are helps us focus the work-process on what is important for our planning purposes.

Step 3: Environmental Forces. Next, identity and assess key forces that will shape the future of these "key decision factors." You can think of these forces as falling into one of two categories—narrow-based trends that impact most directly and specifically on education, such as changing work force skill requirements, government's role in education, and "privatization" of schools; and broad-based trends, such as shifting demographic patterns, economic growth and income distribution, and the diffusion of information technology. The better we understand the multiplicity, interaction, and uncertainties of these forces, the more realistic our planning is likely to be and the better able we can be to prepare ourselves for sudden shifts in trends and the onset of what would otherwise be surprises.

Next, sort out these trends, ranking each in terms of its strength of impact on education and the degree of uncertainty of the trend's developing as we conjecture (a simple "High-Medium-Low" scoring system will suffice). As a result of this sorting out, we can focus our attention on:

  • "High impact/low uncertainty" forces—these are (we think!) the relative certainties in our future for which our planning must prepare.
  • "High impact/high uncertainty" forces—these are the potential shapers of different futures (scenarios) for which our planning should prepare.

Step 4: Scenario Logics. This step is the heart of the process and establishes the basic structure of the scenarios. If we examine the "high impact/high uncertainty" forces, we will likely find that most of them can be grouped among two or three critical "axes of uncertainty." Each of these axes presents two opposite "logics"--different views or theories of "the way the world might work" in the future. For example, one axis might pose the alternative views that "education will continue to be primarily a public sector responsibility" or "privatization of education will increase dramatically as the role of government in our society decreases." (Bear in mind that these are polar opposites, with intervening mid-points: but the essence of scenarios is not to examine every possibility, but to force our planning to consider the possibility of drastically different futures.),br>

The interplay of these axes and their alternative logics will present us with the basis for selecting three to four scenarios we believe effectively bound the "envelope of uncertainty" that faces our organization.

Step 5: Scenarios. What do we end up with? What do scenarios look like? There are many forms that scenarios can take, but I have found that the three most important features are:

  • Compelling "story lines"-Remember: scenarios are not descriptions of end-points (e.g., what does education in the year 2000 look like), but are narratives of how events might unfold between now and then, given the dynamics ("scenario logics") we have assigned to that particular scenario. These story lines should be dramatic, compelling, logical, and plausible.
  • Highly descriptive titles that convey the essence of what is happening in each case. (Jay Ogilvy, for instance, titled his scenarios The Information Revolution, Education Inc., and The New Educational Order.) After people have read the story lines, they should find the titles to be memorable encapsulations of the scenario.
  • A table of comparative descriptions, to help planners and decision-makers see how the scenarios differ along given dimensions (e.g., student-body demographics, available funding, business-education partnerships).

Step 6: Strategic Implications. This is the stage at which we seek to interpret the scenarios, linking them back to the strategic decision(s) we focused on in Step 1. Perhaps the simplest and most direct approach is to answer two questions:

  1. What are the main opportunities and threats that each scenario poses for our organization?
  2. How well prepared are we (or can we be) to seize these opportunities and obviate or minimize the threats?

How Can You Use Scenarios?
Beyond the opportunities/threats assessment exercise in step 6, there are several approaches to using scenarios in strategy development that are worth considering. Let me just touch on two of these approaches.

Perhaps the most obvious way to use scenarios is to employ them, in effect, as "test beds" for the organization's current strategy. What is a "strategy"? In simple terms, a strategy deals with the "how," "when" and "where" of an organization's actions to achieve its vision. Every organization has a strategy (although often it is not clearly spelled out) so this use should always be possible. This exercise can be as straightforward as a judgmental assessment by planning committee members as to how well (or badly) the strategy "plays out" in each scenario. A start would be to go through an opportunities/threats assessment (see above), and then to use this assessment to address a second set of questions. Are we satisfied with the resilience of our current strategy, its flexibility to deal with different possible conditions? Are there things we could do to improve its resilience? And (importantly) are there contingency plans we should put in place to help move in a different direction, should that be necessary?

Scenarios stimulate us to explore new strategy options. Look at it this way: scenarios portray different futures, and these different futures would obviously require different strategies. The difficulty lies in not knowing which future will evolve. You can, however, go beyond evaluating current strategy to exploring these new options, scenario by scenario. You do not have to develop a complete strategy for each scenario; we need merely use our imagination to start some "what if" thinking. Frequently we will find that a new option, one that we thought of in connection with, say, a "High Privatization" scenario, might be a good action to take in any case; maybe not to the same extent, but a "good bet" surely.

The fundamental argument for scenario planning goes somewhat like this. In an age of incremental change, it is safe to say that incremental changes in our strategies will suffice. However, an age of discontinuities and massive uncertainties requires discontinuous strategies, sometimes radical changes from past practices. The powerful feature of scenarios is that they stretch the envelope of our thinking, both about the future and about our strategies.


Ogilvy, J. (1994, April/May). The information revolution. On the Horizon, 2(4), 1-2, 4.

Ogilvy, J. (1994, June/July). Education in the 21st century. On the Horizon, 2(5), 1-2.

Wilson, I. (1994, February). The strategic management of higher education: Lessons from corporate experience. On the Horizon, 2(3), 1-2.

The citation for this article is as follows: Wilson, I. "Envisioning (and Inventing) the Future." On the Horizon, 1995, 3(3), 1–2, 5. It is reproduced here with permission of Jossey-Bass Publishers.


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