What are scenarios?

A scenario is a story that describes a possible future. It identifies some significant events, the main actors and their motivations, and it conveys how the world functions. Building and using scenarios can help people explore what the future might look like and the likely challenges of living in it.
— Scenarios: an explorer’s guide, Shell International


Scenarios are narratives of the future defined around a set of unpredictable drivers, intended to expand insight into future uncertainty by identifying unexpected but important possible directions and outcomes. Scenarios usually have a timeline over which meaningful change is possible.

Scenarios are tools, useful for examining a number of different possible futures to better understand the driving forces of today and to develop the means to work towards preferred futures. Scenario methodologies provide a means to generate thought, think creatively, challenge participants’ assumptions, and provide an effective framework for dialogue among a diverse group of stakeholders.

Scenarios do not need to be likely; they ought instead to be plausible, internally consistent, important, and relevant. Good scenarios often make experts feel uncomfortable because they demand that participants grapple with conclusions that are contrary to closely-held beliefs or conventional wisdoms about the future.

There are different types of scenarios: technocratic scenarios that are oriented towards states and planning; anticipatory scenarios that aim to help organizations survive in an uncertain world; and generative scenarios that identify interventions that try to realize values and transform the future, often by embracing uncertainty as a basis of strategy.

Although fictional, the narratives incorporate highly analytical as well as intuitive thinking.

Scenarios are often used to engage persons with divergent views and colliding perspectives to create a common understanding of a difficult or contentious issue and to build a shared strategy to respond to the challenges in the focal question and scenarios.

Scenarios have several characteristics that make them powerful specifically for informing global policy challenges:

Scenarios are decision focused.

Successful scenarios begin and end by clarifying the decisions and actions the participants must make if they are to successfully deal with an uncertain future. One common misconception of scenarios is that they are prescient, path dependent predictions of the future. On the contrary, scenarios are used to order our thoughts amid uncertainty, build common ground among differing perspectives, and think rationally about our options. They should never divert attention away from the decision itself.

Scenarios are imaginative.

In examining a decision within the context of a number of different futures, scenarios require us to suspend belief for a moment. They encourage participants to challenge their assumptions and conventional wisdom, create new contexts for existing decisions, and think creatively about options for surmounting obstacles. At their core, then, scenarios are about learning.

Scenarios are logical.

The scenario process is formal and disciplined in its use of information and analysis. The creativity and imagination inspired by scenarios can only be as effective as it is based in sound reality. But in requiring participants to challenge each other’s thoughts, perceptions, and mind-sets, the process helps identify that reality.

Scenarios are shared. Scenario methodologies provide a common language for participants to communicate about complex events and decisions.


2 Responses to “What are scenarios?”

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