The Big Picture

We matter

Until a few hundred years ago anything we humans undertook did not matter on a geophysical, evolutionary scale. It mattered a lot to us humans, but the planet, nature and life itself just shrugged - if they noticed at all.

 

This has changed. Collectively, we now matter. We change the climate, we leave behind waste that needs to be kept separate from life for tens of thousands of years, we intervene in evolution, to name but a few areas where learning by trial and error won’t work. Because the potential errors could wipe us out.

 

Still, we act as if there would always be enough survivors to observe our trials and draw conclusions from them so that next time we, at least, won’t make the same error twice.

 

The power we have to change life, nature, the planet and everything in between will be with us from now on - you can’t put the genie back in the bottle again. Pandora’s box doesn’t have a lid anymore.

 

So the very least we should do, in my mind, is to approach the future with a bit more humility, prudence, and modesty, rather than charge ahead without any thought, consideration or a plan B. Scenarios don’t just give you that plan B, but also plan C and plan D.

The future is wide open

Until a few generations ago, what was to become of us was tightly prescribed by material constraints. If your father was a carpenter, it made an awful lot of sense to become one yourself. The task was to adapt as best as you could to very narrow and well-trodden paths into the future - and be content in doing so.

 

Today, already two billion, and growing, people in the world can be anything they want to be. A privilege of kings and queens in the past has become ubiquitous.

 

While we first thought that this was an unfettered reason for maximum joy and never ending happiness, we are slowly learning that this is also a curse. The freedom to choose becomes the obligation to choose. And coming out of a world of barely hanging in there, we are not so good at making choices. It is not in our bones.

 

Scenarios are a tool to put some order into the choosing you will have to do throughout your life. Rather than being paralyzed by all the options, all the opportunities, all the snake oil sellers peddling their potions, you can use scenarios to regain some control over your life, to live the story of your life, rather than the story someone else wants you to live.

The signal and the noise

Finally, a slightly more technical reason for becoming proficient with scenarios. All data and information consist of signal components and noise components. And it’s the signals that carry the useful bits we are after: news, facts, truth, reality, accuracy, precision and certainty. Unfortunately, they are buried, sometimes very deeply, in noise. Noise is distraction, commotion, disturbance and uncertainty. Note that I am using ‘noise’ here not as the intrinsic component of a signal , but the more colloquial background disturbances that smear the signal, all the way to totally hiding it.

 

So, what can we do when our signal gets lost in the noise? We can and must give it context. As Nate Silver writes “Information becomes knowledge only when it’s placed in context.” (Silver, 2015, "The Signal and the Noise", Penguin, New York) What scenarios are really good at is placing your signal, your data, into not one, but several divergent contexts.

 

Let’s assume your signal is the word ‘signal’, written in black. If your noise is a very dark gray, the information content of your signal is very hard to pick out. Not easy to see, even if your eyes are as sharp as a hawk’s eye. However, if you place the same signal into a different context, say a lighter gray, things become much easier.

 

 In the real world, the signal you are after is of course not the word ‘signal’, but a wild mixture of facts, ideas, rumors, disinformation, weak indications, of exactly what - you are not quite sure; all fuzzy, fraying at the edges, fading in and out and open to all kinds of measurement error and interpretation dilemmas. Just try to recall the ‘signals’ you had to deal with the last time you fell in love.

In such situations it is good to have a few divergent contexts at hand against which you can place your noisy signals and see if they become clearer.

 

Why do I keep talking about divergent rather than just plain old different contexts? Because I want to emphasize the fact that your contexts should really be going in vastly different directions and not just be slightly shifted instances of each other. With divergent scenario contexts at your disposal you see quite different things in the presence, and consequently, pay attention to. Or, as my mentor Betty Sue Flowers once put it more eloquently: “Your presence is shaped by the stories you tell about the future.”

 

It is difficult to visualize this in a black and white book, but if, for example, your signal is a small mammal, then place it in a jungle, in a desert, on an ice float or the like rather than in a handful of slightly differently arranged ornamental English gardens.

 

Scenarios empower you and your team to actually create these contexts. In this little book you will learn step by step how to do this, and once they exist, how to apply them to your decision-making. As a result, the decisions that you take in the present will turn out to be better ones for the uncertainties of the future that will always confront you.

 

 

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