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Phase 4: Two Uncertainties
In this phase, you conclude the second closure phase and start the second opening phase. A difficult transition, because you do that in a workshop setting with about twenty four participants, plus or minus 3 to 5 people.
Why a workshop? You could, of course, do this yourself, or just with the core team. There are two reasons to go through with the cost and effort of a workshop: 1) You end up with better scenarios. Just as four eyes see more than two, working with a fresh group of people surfaces more faulty, shallow and flawed thinking. Better to find out at the beginning than when you have printed thousands of copies of your scenarios and are half way through the roll-out. 2) Scenarios are stories of the future and to have an impact, you need people to tell them. The workshop participants are thus your kernel of a group who will carry the scenario-stories to the world outside.
(If you do a personal scenario exercise, you, of course, do not invite two dozen strangers to work with you - although involving a few family members you trust is not too bad an idea.)
• To start with the mundane, if at all possible organize your workshop as a residential three-day event. Being away from normal surroundings is a great boost for the creativity of the participants and makes it easier to think the unthinkable, to question the obvious and to challenge the official future.
• You need a room large enough for all the participants and your team to do the plenary work in and you need four small breakout rooms. You can, if all else fails, use the large room for breakout work, but this is far from ideal.
• All the work rooms should have natural light, a flip chart or two and you should be allowed to pin papers on the wall.
• All the rooms should have natural light, windows you can open and look out over a bit of nature. Even a small garden, pond or field is much better than looking out over a six lane highway.
• You also need lots of post-it notes; they can be the run-of-the-mill variety, but they must be able to stick – I‘ve had my fair share of struggling with Post-it notes whose glue simply didn‘t stick. While it is at times quite funny to watch your group‘s wisdom slowly float to the bottom of the room, in the end, it gets to be quite annoying. Hence, bring good, easy to use tape, just in case.
• You also need lots of thick markers. If you give participants normal pens or pencils, many will not be able to resist the temptation to squeeze in very small font long stories onto their Post-it notes.
• The breakout rooms should have one flip chart each with enough paper for the whole three days, and the plenary room should have two flip charts.
• Visit the place before so you know the people that run the location and, very important, have a look at their food. Make sure they can offer vegetarian and other dietary requirement choices. Buffet style lunch and dinner is organizationally preferable as well as usually cheaper than being served at the table.
• On the technical side, you need a beamer in the plenary that works with your laptop or tablet. You also need to be able to take pictures of the flip charts which participants will be generating in volume. It is tempting to use the ubiquitous smart phones to take the pictures, if you do so, make sure the resolution is good enough. Very often the resolution is set to work well for the occasional snap shot or selfie but is not good enough to give you the quality you need to be able to reproduce the pictures for the record of the workshop later on. Finally, in today‘s world where we are continuously online, so be sure to organize free Wi-Fi. If this is not possible make sure people know before they come to the location that they may be restrictions to being online.
• Prepare name tags for everyone. They should only consist of the first and last name of the person, and not include any title or function or indicate the company or organization that they represent. Remember, and remind everyone, that participants attend as ordinary human beings, not as representatives of something more or less important. The names should be big enough so they can be read from a distance. This is one of those tiny tricks that turns the attention to the individual and the way from who they are or what they represent in the world outside the workshop.
On to the slightly less mundane. As the project manager, you are also the plenary facilitator, and you start the workshop with a very short theoretical overview of the scenario process. Very short means 30 minutes. It is not important that the participants get a deep and profound understanding of the process with all its detail, nuances, and elaborations, what they need to get is a feel for where they are in the process, what happened before and what will happen afterwards. Orientation, in other words.
You then moderate the introduction of both the participants and your core team to each other. With about 30 people in the room, that takes about an hour. Ask people also to reflect a little bit on why they’re there, what their expectations may be for the workshop and if they have any kind of prior experience or exposure to scenario work, good or bad.
After that, you announce the ground rules for the workshop:
• Confidentiality, also known as ‘Chatham House Rule’ ,
• empathetic listening, if this is new to you, read up on it under phase 3 above
• constructive criticism, which is criticism not to destroy the other‘s argument, but to help him or her improve - their logic, their wording, their pacing, their rhythm, etc.
And stick to them! (If you feel like it, you may write these rules - and any other you feel are important - on a big piece of paper and hang them in a prominent space for everyone to see.)
Then, one or two members of your core team give a 30 minute or so presentation of the analysis of the interviews. You then give the participants their first task, which is to spend an hour or two in small groups and come back to the plenary with the two most important and most uncertain drivers of the future with respect to the driving question of the project. The drivers need to be independent of each other.
They can use the input from the interviews, but stress that they are free to use any other idea, concept, driver, whatever that comes to their collective mind.
You need to have assigned participants to four different groups, something which I do beforehand by labeling the groups according to color, let’s say blue, yellow, green and red and put a colored dot on to their name tag, so they know which group they belong to. Your four small group facilitators in your core team will also have been assigned a color in advance.
Either you in the plenary or your small group facilitators should show the participants the template below. In the small group work, participants should step up to the board or flip-chart and paste their contribution where they see it in relation to its importance and its uncertainty in the future . If the group finds it difficult to order their drivers in two dimensions - importance and certainty - at the same time, have them do importance first and then certainty second. Takes a bit longer, but often helps people who have never had the opportunity to work this way.
When done, the two drivers they will report back to the plenary will come from the dark gray area. They should also note three to five drivers that ended up in the light gray area; these are the ‘givens’, highly important but very certain in the judgment of the group.
Difficulties to be aware of I
Two: We strongly, often subconsciously, resent having to commit ourselves to such a small number. We want options, choices, room to maneuver, ten, or more, action items and long lists of demands the other side must meet before we deign to consider their grievances! And so we have become ‘list generators’, forgetting in the process that some things are more important than others; and also forgetting that if you have ten or more key points that you have to act on – after all, they are key – you very well may be busy, but not necessarily effective.
Uncertain: Somehow we are conditioned to be highly suspicious of uncertainties, we seem to have to know – even if we have to fake it. Not to know is considered a weakness in many cultures. But the paradox is that to have any chance that what we do does have an effect, we actually need uncertainty. If everything is already certain, then there is, quite literally, nothing you can do to make any difference at all! You can wait and, yes, you can prepare for it, but you cannot change the course of events.
Rhythm of work
During the small group work, the plenary facilitator and the writer-editor wander from group to group (after the groups have settled into their work), listening but not saying a word –to get a sense of, a feel for the overall direction of participants’ thinking.
After the work in small groups, participants reassemble in the plenary. One person from each group presents their findings while the others listen emphatically and criticize constructively. The plenary facilitator helps the entire group to agree on the two most important and uncertain drivers for their future. It may be necessary to go back and forth, because reaching two drivers is devilishly difficult. Often, more, many more drivers are offered and it is up to the facilitators to guide the group, large or small, to search for and find the deeper, more profound concepts that overarch the conflicting many, another instance of inductive clustering.
Reaching agreement on what the two most important and most uncertain drivers are, takes creativity, courage, trust, time and a little guidance. The guidance comes from the core team, the rest from the participants.
Workshops pick up the rhythm of the entire process: small groups generate, create, open up, the plenary brings closure - out, in - free associating, focus ...
Difficulties to be aware of II
What if small groups come up with 4, 6, 8 drivers?
Inductive clustering is the answer, i.e. the search in the plenary for words and ideas that in the specific form you will be using them, may never actually have been said by anyone of the small groups. Once again, you are after the spirit, the essence, the underlying facts and emotions of their contribution rather than an orthographically and grammatically correct quote.
What if participants want a third axis in the plenary?
Sometimes participants may suggest a third driver, especially after you’ve told them that the drivers will be placed at right angles to each other to create the scenario space (gray circle above). Since we live in a three dimensional world, it seems silly not to use all three dimensions. Resist the temptation, for a very simple reason. If you place the drivers at right angles to each other, a space with four quadrants emerges - see above. Each of these quadrants becomes the home of one of the scenarios that will be created in phases 5 and 6. Each scenario will be bounded by two important uncertainties. So far, so good.
If, however, you allow a third driver, coming out of the flat space (like a z-axis), this creates a sphere, and you have eight spherical segments as homes for the scenarios, bounded each by three uncertainties:
Not only does the picture get more complicated to draw, the resulting eight scenarios get very difficult to keep apart - we humans are not good at distinguishing clearly between so many possibilities. Let alone keep them all in our heads at the same time to be able to test your decisions (as you will do in phase 7). Hence, the restriction to two drivers of uncertainty is a practical limitation to increase the practical usefulness of your scenarios.
If nothing works
If the plenary goes on and on, if people fidget in their chairs, if the discomposure becomes palatable and the air in the room sticky, then the temptation to cut off debate and vote on the uncertain drivers may become overwhelming. The two with the most votes survive, and the rest is dropped. Avoid this at almost any cost. You may get the two drivers, but you also get your fair share of disgruntled participants, namely all the ones whose drivers were dropped. These participants may not rebel on the spot, but they are the ones who days, weeks or months later call the entire work into question and spread the word that this is one of those useless exercises that are doomed to fail because the method is faulty.
Instead, try to get agreement on two drivers as a working hypotheses, to see, in other words, if they are strong enough to create, to craft a scenario space interesting, sturdy and powerful enough to support the creation of really good and divergent scenario stories. If they are, all is well, but if they are not, you must honor the promise of the working hypotheses and revisit the search for the two drivers later on in the process.
What if all small groups come up with same two drivers?
This is potentially more difficult than too many drivers, because there may be a perception that this has all been ‘pre-cooked’ and that this whole process is just a charade to lend an air of legitimacy to something that has already been decided elsewhere. Worse if this perception is there but not aired. To change that perception depends, in the end, on the personal integrity of the core team.
In the plenary, like in the small groups before, a list will emerge of the important and certain drivers. Keep track of them and also try to whittle them down to a few. This ‘givens’ must show up and be dealt with in every story that eventually emerges.
2nd task: Endpoints
The second task, first in small groups, then in the plenary, is to anchor the endpoints of the two most important uncertainties. The question that needs to be answered is ‘How do I know that I am at one or the other endpoint of the uncertainty?’
This may sound odd at first, but it is necessary to ask, and to answer, this question because we all have different, often unspoken, ideas in our heads how to respond. Let’s say, for example, that one driver is ‘consumer demand’, the task is to define the extreme ends of the uncertainty surrounding ‘consumer demand’ that the participants have in mind. An answer, from a real example I was part of, anchored one end as a world in which consumers were extremely self-centered: ‘Me, myself and I’ was the shorthand we used. While the other end was anchored by consumers who demanded respect for others. ‘World-centered’ was the shorthand chosen.
This discussion also reveals how far participants want to stretch the scenario space. In another workshop, an uncertain driver was ‘sustainability’. Was the endpoint a Sunday speech about sustainability, the triple bottom line, the circular economy, or what? They settled on the as yet undefined ‘quintuple bottom line’ to signal that the end was far, far beyond what societies may consider when using the word ‘sustainable’.
While the anchor, the definition, is rarely one that a natural scientist would feel comfortable with, it is important to get the groups to be as precise as possible. Natural language is and needs to be ambiguous, but it leads to the situation where different people hear the same word, nod agreement, but their underlying understanding is completely different. This leads to problems later on.
Sometimes it may be difficult to anchor the endpoints. Because it is genuinely difficult to do so, because there is an unspoken taboo to go very far, or because there is hesitation to speak the unspeakable. In such situations, what emerges as anchor points is often a shallow binary solution of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or ‘more’ or ‘less’. If you let these words stand, you are almost guaranteed later on in the process to have endless anecdotal discussions about what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ really mean. Much better to have stronger concepts and definitions to begin with. Remember and remind participants that the whole exercise is about the future and what may be taboo today needs to be aired tomorrow and the day after.
The endpoint discussion is also where you examine and agree on the time horizon. Having started with the two development cycles in the driving question, you get here confirmation on what to use.
The two most important uncertainties with their endpoints are the end of phase 4, but not of the workshop. That one goes on, ideally after a good night’s sleep onto phase 5, the plotlines.
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