Thursday, 8 April 2010

So what so what so what's the scenario?

Sometimes, when I say you have to deal with the world as it is, people think I mean you can’t change things. That’s not it at all – quite the opposite. But I do think you need to have an awareness of current reality to begin to sense or think your way to where you want to get to. That’s one of the reasons I like combining numerical data with qualitative information. Sometimes just following the numbers can tell you things the business plan doesn’t. (You know, I once did a ‘Which character from The Wire would you be?’ quiz and I was Lester Freamon.) It’s why I also think scenario thinking can be really helpful if applied in the right way.

Often, scenarios are created which are either visions towards which our mission will drive us, or nightmare scenarios created to push us in the opposite direction (ie where we want to go, again). In each case they are essentially things used to persuade us of something. (We’re getting plenty of these types of scenarios from all sides in the election campaign, right now.) These can be useful rallying cries, things to keep everyone pushing in the same direction, but are less useful in determining exactly what to do.

Because of course, the real world isn’t like that – it’s rarely one thing or the other, it varies and contradicts itself. So a more useful, though much more difficult kind of scenario thinking is to imagine alternative versions of the future, with some key variables and think what would be most likely to happen in them, based on what we know (as opposed to what we’d want to happen). This requires real discipline, the wishful thinking gene being a strong one. But when you can see what might happen if and then think through your best course of action for any scenario, you give yourself a better chance of coming out resilient and productive.

Scenario planning also broadens the attention from what’s happening now, or what’s happened in the past to what’s happened in the past, to the future, which is, after all, where people and organisations will be operating. So many action plans are shaped to respond to past conditions rather than future, but understanding scenarios can help resolve this – designing organisations and strategies for today and tomorrow. We are seeing less of this type of thinking in the election so far, although we can perhaps forgive politicians that a little. Whenever they acknowledge that there are different possibilities in the future which might mean different things, the media or the public seem to demand absolute certainty – we want conclusions, sureness, even if it turns out a chimera.

Shell are often cited as the example of the use of scenario planning in business, although this has been questioned. (The Wikipedia page on the subject has some useful notes of caution on the limitations of the tool.) There is useful material on Scenario Thinking site here also.

When planning Thinking Practice I have tried to practice what I preach, so did some imagining of future scenarios for the arts. The two key variables I settled on were resources and how outward-looking the sector was. I could have chosen change-orientation for the second. This was thinking about the next 5-10 years, and wanting to be useful whatever happens. I’ve included this on the Thinking Practice website, as I think it’s useful background if nothing else. I suspect elements of all four of these scenarios will co-exist, but am not sure which one is likely to dominate, or which I’d prefer. (And to reiterate: that’s not the point of the exercise.) Anyway, what do you think?

A: Frustrated Optimism (Drastically few resources, outward-looking sector)
Ingenuity and innovation vie with frustration and loss of talent. Competition and collaboration co-exist. Brokerage of partnerships becomes central. Collaborative efforts, including with 3rd, regeneration and education sectors hampered by lack of resources. Creative industries and 3rd sector blur as new forms spring up.

B: Changing the World Again (Sustained resources, outward-looking sector)
Development of new models creates new demands, requiring new skills. Audiences expand, as forms blur, events and digital blending. Venues, digital and ‘pop ups’ interrelate productively to bring new talent through. High profile partnerships emphasise excellence and social value. Some organisations left behind and close.

C: Few But Roses (Drastically few resources, self-reflective sector)
Collaborations, closures, mergers lead to improvement, efficiency, change, gains and loss. Art forms jostle for position and funding. Innovation may paradoxically focus on ’proven innovators’. ‘Undergrounds’ flourish in pro-am sector. Digital distribution and lo-fi ‘pop up’ events grow. Flagships venues/events central to development.

D: Thriving by Surviving (Sustained resources, self-reflective sector)
Excellence of product is matched by loyal audiences, though from the ‘converted’. Stability is prioritised over innovation in model by funders and sector alike. Digital grows but without urgency, except in the margins. Leadership is focused on cultural outputs rather than social or blended.

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