(published on the Summer 2001 issue of the Futures Research Quarterly)

1. Introduction

The aim of this survey is to sketch the state-of-the-art and the prospect for the evolution of scenario building and of scenario planning, a set of techniques and of tools which have been used in strategic analysis with various degrees of acceptance and of success in these last decades. My initial aim was to restrict the survey to scenarios in business: in carrying out the research, however, it became more and more evident that ignoring what is done in no profit organisations as well as in government was unpractical, to say the least. So the survey now refers to scenario building and scenario planning in general: what has probably been lost in depth is perhaps compensated by what has been gained in scope.

However a nevessary distinction must be introduced, the one between scenario building and scenario planning. Building scenarios means speculating about the uncertainty surrounding the future: basically it means envisaging a few different possible future outcomes for the situation under scrutiny or, in the word of the Swedish neurobiologist David Ingvar, to create “memories of the future” (Schwartz, 1992). From a practical point of view scenario building is the necessary foundation for scenario planning, a management technology used by managers “to articulate their mental models about the future and thereby make better decisions” (Georgantzas, 1996). There is of course a lot of overlapping between the two notions, but whereas scenario building could in principle exists without scenario planning, the latter could not exist without the former as its necessary and logical premise 1. But in the last analysis both scenario building and scenario planning stem from the same identical theoretical and practical approach to the study of the future and are both a labyrinth of the same hybrid disciplines.

This is the gist of the explanations usually found in that segment of the managerial literature which is favourable to the use of scenario building and scenario planning and recommends using them in a variety of management situations. But to depict the state-of-the-art and the prospects of evolution of the approach these explanations – even if they were much more detailed - would be insufficient. We need to delve deeper, to extend the enquiry to the relevant practitioners, not so much to prove or disprove those explanations in theory, as to verify them in the light of the experience from the field 2.

2. Scenarios: more or less?

Scenarios have been in business for four to five decades now, even if the phase of introduction was perhaps longer than in other similar cases. A substantial majority of the experts involved in the survey at the base of this paper argue that the use of scenarios has substantially increased in the last 10 years, both in profit and no - profit organisations, and that it is now an accepted tool of strategic thinking. Various reasons are quoted to explain this trend: the turbulence and consequent uncertainty of the environment, the globalisation and the deregulation of the economy, the accelerated rhythm of change. Strategic analysis by means of scenarios is now able to tackle more complex tasks than earlier and at the same time the number of managers who understand its potential has grown. One evidence of this growth is the increasing number of companies which request strategic advice buttressed with scenario and, symmetrically, the growing number of consulting companies which offer scenario building and / or planning as part of their portfolio of services (and many of these companies were founded in these last years). The growing body of the specific literature is another evidence of steady increase in the recognition of scenarios as a useful management tool.

There are both dissenting opinions and differences, however. To begin with, a substantial part of the activity in scenario building and particularly in scenario planning is confidential in nature, so it is hard to assess what the trend really is. Besides it can be argued that many practitioners and users employ the term for any informal anticipation of future trends and events: the amount of energies devoted to formal scenario approaches could in fact be not much larger then, say, ten years ago. Discontinuities, turbulence and rapid change may have spurred the need for scenarios but they may also have had the opposite effect , in particular in the high-tech industry, where they have sparkled a phase of hyper-competition. Here the short or very short term is king and strategic planning, with its suite of scenarios, may sometimes be seen as useless. In other words, the benefits of scenarios may lay too far ahead for many managers to appreciate the value of scenarios. Many managers – and many of them are now young, as they are what remains of a down – sized workforce – became convinced that one simply cannot plan for the future, which has lead them to prefer approaches such as the visionary management, which is much less structured and formal than scenarios. Incidentally, this could be also a reason for scenarios to gain more ground in no – profit and government organisations than in business: the average life cycle of a business company is now around thirty years 3. Organisations of different types on the othe hand can rely on a longer life expectancy and are therefore in principle more interested in scanning the future at long term.

There are differences which spring grom different local environments. At company level, the use of scenarios seems to be restricted to the most advanced countries, with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, notably Sweden, in the lead. In government activities, on the other hand, good examples of the scenario approach can be found also in developing countries, provided they have adopted a pro – market economic stance 4. Where the decision making process is still influenced by a strong tradition of authoritarianism, such as in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the scenario approach, with its acceptance of uncertainty and its reliance on speculative thinking, is rejected 5. But also some advanced countries present an environment, if not hostile, at least not favourable to the development of scenarios as a management tool. In Italy there has traditionally been in all fields of activity a weak orientation to deciding and planning at long term and in this cultural atmosphere the plant of scenarios has remained inevitably relatively puny.

A balanced view is therefore that on the whole the use of scenarios has grown in the last one or two decades but not that much and probably less than could be expected for example in 1980. One possible reason for this is that owing to the great wave of mergers, acquisitions and industrial crises of the Eighties and Nineties the number of really big companies has decreased and big companies are the single most important group of scenario users (but the interest of middle – sized companies is stadily growing). Scenarios may even be frequently adopted, but there are less adopters than before. Another reason is that scenario practitioners have so far had only a limited success in finding a good balance between an excess of technicality on the one side and a relapse into superficiality on the other (but more on this in paragraph 5).

3. In any case, they are here to stay.

By and large it seems that the use of scenarios by companies as well as by non – profit and government organisations goes and comes in waves, though of a rather modest magnitude. There was a peak in the first half of the Seventies followed by a trough and then another peak in the second half of the Eighties. In the first years of the Nineties scenarios were less in use, but they revamped towards the end of the decade. This is of course a very generic trend, containing within it all sort of different possible single situations.

What can be expected in the way of future developments in the use of scenarios?. The experts questioned in the survey were predominantly rather optimistic, anticipating an increase. The reasons cited for this assessment were in general consistent with those quoted to assess the past developments in scenario use: the acceleration of technological change, the globalisation of markets, the spread of information technologies, demographic shifts, etc. In spite of what has been noted in connection with the shortening of the time horizon of the decision making process, R&D and investment more and more need a long – term approach. Scenarios will play a useful role in this respect.

Is there a correlation of any kind between the demand for scenarios and the business cycle? A question like this cannot obviously be answered with certainty, nevertheless it seems that the ups and downs in scenario use resent of the economic climate, though in a peculiar way. It is not so much the peaks and troughs of the business cycle that spur the use of scenarios as the transition phase , i.e. when a recession is about to end and change into a recovery or when a boom is about to finish and change into a slump. In other words, it is when expectations are changing that the need to make recourse to scenarios is more felt.. Together with the advent of the new century, this is perhaps what has engineered the rise in the demand for scenarios emerged in the late Nineties, when the long boom of the preceding years appeared to be approaching its end.

Some of the experts expect, therefore, that the present positive wave in the use of scenarios will recede within one or two years to be replaced by a decline. We are talking in relative, not absolute terms : a “decline” could actually mean a “decline in the rate of growth”, which entails a growth in absolute terms, at least until the rate of growth becomes negative. At medium term there should be another upsurge.

There are also structural factors, however, to be taken into consideration. One is the need for the scenario approach to become more flexible, not only in terms of use and content, but also in terms of time. The contradiction between short – term thinking and acting and the need for long – term decision making can always find some kind of solution, albeit temporary and precarious, but the shrinking of the time lag between planning/deciding and execution is now here to stay. The time available for elaborated and pondered scenario building and scenario planning will shrink in unison with the growth of the need for a rapid and flexible strategic thinking. In the future the recourse to scenarios will be deeply influenced by the ability of scenario practitioners to meet this challenge.

Another structural factor is the possible emergence of substitutes. Scenarios are used in explore the future – which is not exactly the same thing as forecasting it – and of course there are many other approaches which serve the same purpose. Among these, destructured approaches comprehensively labelled as creative thinking are probably the most dangerous competitors. In this sense, even a significant increase in the demand for future studies would not necessarily bring about an increase in the specific demand for scenario building and scenario planning. It is up to scenario practitioners to make their set of tools adequate and attractive enough to maintain or even improve their market share.

4. What does one gain from scenarios?

There is a consensus in the relevant literature on the main benefits which the recourse to the scenario approach may entail: the improvement of the learning process, the improvement of the decision making process and the identification of new issues and problems which an organisation may have to face in the future. On the other hand, no great benefits are to be expected in anticipating the future per se, as this difficult and stressing task should not really be assigned to any scenario exercise.

Some of the experts deem that scenarios can serve all these purposes and that no one of them is really more (or less) important than the others. Dealing with the complexity and uncertainty of the environment should by itself create or at least strengthen the basic conditions to improve both the learning and the decision making process as well as make executives aware of so far unknown opportunities and threats. Moreover, scenarios can foster a future oriented way of running the organisation so as to allow it to control its destiny. Actually, other benefit besides those three could be expected. The use of scenarios can change the corporate culture, compelling its managers to rethink radically the hypotheses on which they had founded their strategy. This can happen by changing and / or by making explicit the mental models used to analyse the environment, as well as by making the managers to accept that the world is really a very uncertain place and by stressing the importance of dealing with change. Scenarios can lead to the creation of a common language for dealing with strategic issues by opening a strategic conversation within the organisation in the line of van der Heiden (van der Heiden, 1996). And finally scenarios can single out leverage points for proactively changing the future. One point should in any case be stressed: the benefits of scenarios are greatly enhanced if the relevant process is an ongoing one.

For some other experts the benefits expected from scenarios can be somehow ranked in order of importance or of priority. In this connection it is the improvement of the decision making process to obtain the highest degree of consensus as the most important one. Generally speaking, the connection between futures studies and decision – making is a constant and ever – increasing one (Masini, 1993; Duncan 1994). Again van Der Heiden has suggested however that a scenario – based decision making is philosophically different from traditional “rationalistic” decision theory or decision analysis, as it is based on the assumption that every proposal has attractive and unattractive aspects (whereas traditional theories aim at characterising a given proposal either as acceptable or unacceptable). As scenarios promote thinking in terms of systems rather than of single factors, they stress that any specific decision is not good or bad in abstract terms, but only in connection with a specific situation, with an environment conceived not as a cluster of independent variables, but rather as a network of interdependent relationships (Campbell – Hunt, 1998). So the benefit gained by the decision making process from the use of scenarios is mainly in rendering the process more flexible, more open to criticism and more transparent 6 .

Second in the rank of importance among the benefits obtained by using scenarios is the improvement of the learning process. But this benefit is not so much connected with what a scenario contains as with how it is carried out. A properly made scenario explores as many paths to the future as technically convenient and involves in its preparation as many member of an organisation as logically possible. The amount of information that is amassed and processed to do this is such as to dramatically increase the knowledge of the organisation, i.e. the organised and shared information it possesses. What can be thus learned about the environment, the competitors, the stakeholders etc. vastly transcends the other advantages that a scenario building and planning process can bring about.

Opinions on the benefits to be gained by using scenarios in identifying new issues and problems are rather varied 7. Scenarios can be used with any time horizon but their contribution is greater or much greater at long term. New issues and opportunity generally emerge instead at short or medium term: the time span where they overlap with scenarios is therefore a not very prolonged one. Nevertheless, scenarios can be useful also in this respect, by identifying opportunities and threats that reside in a range of possible futures. When this is done, the other two main benefits, the improvement of the decision making process and of the learning process actually can become by – products of the process.

5. A methodological chaos?

Scenarios suffer from a lack of paradigms in Kuhn’s sense (Kuhn, 1962), i.e. they lack a set of theories, principles and practical rules commonly accepted by at least the vast majority of the theoreticians and of the practitioners (roughly corresponding in Kuhn’s terminology to base and applied scientists). Scenarios share this situation with business strategy and to a certain extent also with management, but their predicament is in this respect more extreme. In fact, there are some theories, principles and rules for building (and to a rather lesser extent also for planning) with scenarios. The problem is that they are vastly different and even furiously conflicting with each other. For example, there are some methodologies used in scenario building that follow the classical procedure of the scientific inquiry: 1. Observation, collection and grouping of empirical material; 2. Induction, formulation of hypothesis; 3. Deduction, derivation of specific consequences from the hypotheses in the form of testable predictions; 4. Testing of the hypotheses, i.e. checking whether they are confirmed, and 5. Evaluation of the outcome of the testing procedure with respect to the hypotheses or theories stated (De Groot, 1969). Other procedures do not bother at all to follow this pattern: and yet in practice very few or nobody bothers also to point out that from a rational point of view they have a very different level of reliability. The reason is that scenario builders rarely bother to venture out of the methodology they know and have applied with some success.

These methodological shortcomings is at the root of there being almost as many ways of building and planning with scenarios as there are practitioners. This has led to some scepticism or lack of trust on their usefulness, in the worst cases even to scorn, all consequences that have impaired a generalised acceptance of the approach: an acceptance which would have been well deserved in view of the important services it can give to management theory and practice.

This situation is faithfully reflected in the opinions expressed by the experts in the panel on their methodological preferences. Basically, scenarios can be built and plans can be worked out on their basis with two types of methodologies, where “methodology” means the choice and application of specific techniques. Some of the methodologies were developed in other fields and imported into the scenario area, whereas some others were worked out specifically with scenarios in mind 8. Among the former are intuitive logic and trend analysis, among the latter cross – impact analysis and morphological analysis.

In the practice of scenario building and planning intuitive logic is virtually a label applied to any grouping of techniques which a researcher deems fit to solve the particular problem he or she has at hand. Obviously this methodology particularly fosters their creative ability: it was, by the way, used both at Shell and at the Stanford Research Institute A majority of the experts is generically in favour of this method, quoting three reasons for this preference: it is the best suited to use every available information about the future, it generates new ideas and it can help in identifying the underlying patterns. On the other hand, intuitive logic is strictly connected with the expert or group of experts who work on the scenario, the techniques are assembled together in the most varied way and consequently it is hard if not impossible to check the validity of the particular approach adopted from a scientific point of view. This difficulty is certainly compounded by the fact that most of the scenario studies carried out remain in the property of the client company or governmental agency and are therefore not subject to that “peer review” which is in the long run the only method to ascertain the validity of a technique or set of techniques and the scientific reliability of a researcher (but this is generally true of all methods used in scenario building and planning).

Trend impact analysis is a combination of statistical extrapolations with probabilities: the most recent up-date is probably due to Gordon (Gordon, 1996). The methodology has the advantage of being formalised, so it does not get easily out of control, while the scenarios built using it are relatively easy to grasp even by the layman. At the same time it does not rule out creative thinking at all, as the choice of the factors influencing the development of a given trend is in its essence a creative procedure. But trend analysis has its shortcomings: it can be used only if long, detailed and reliable time series of data are available and if the researchers using it have a sound background in statistical and probability theory. For this reason, it is used by a minority only of experts and quotations in the relevant literature are comparatively rare.

Cross – impact analysis is probably the methodology most directly connected with the use of scenarios. A lot of literature was published on the subject and controversies on its validity were particularly fierce 9. The great advantage of cross – impact is that it is a highly formalised method, which allows control; the disadvantage is that if it is not contained within certain limits it is the formalisation itself to go out of control and to gain an excessive edge on the usefulness and reliability of the content. In this way the cross – impact user runs the risk of looking like a pet dog who stares at his master’s finger rather than the direction in which the gesture is meant to activate him. A number of experts is anyway quite positive on the method, pointing out that it is often a good point of entry to begin with scenarios, that it arouses the interest of people of various backgrounds and that it is very good for stimulating new ideas, even if one does not bother to go as far as to extracting projections out of it. For scenario planning in particular, the verbal – i.e., non numerical – procedure proposed by Porter (Porter, 1985) to build industry scenarios looks particularly interesting: actually, it is surprising that it did nor arouse even more interest 10.

Finally, morphological analysis as developed by Godet (Godet, 1995) is certainly interesting but it does not seem to have so far had many disciples. One criticism is that this method has a rather strong academic flavour to appeal to managers or civil servants: another that the combination among the different factors which might influence a system in the future is to dependent on subjective judgements and therefore haphazard. Nevertheless it is not outright rejected: the sensation is that it is left to those experts who really feel at home with it and its technicalities.

As noted, most of the practitioners work mainly with one or two methodologies and though not averse from resorting to a combination of them, seem generally inclined to stay where they are. Less than a handful seemed prepared to enter different paths, such as optimisation methods, catastrophe theory, simulation models, fuzzy scenarios 11 , etc. The lack of generally accepted paradigms, though lamented by a few, was not considered as a serious hindrance for a further development of the scenario approach. It is therefore easy to anticipate that the present methodological chaos will not fade away in the foreseeable future (whether this is a negative or positive aspects is a matter that goes beyond the scope of this paper).

6. Technicalities, crystal spheres and consultants

Asking a scenario experts whether he or she thinks that the role of consultants is important in this field is like asking a Catholic clergyman about the importance of priests in his religion. The vast majority of experts are consultants: even those who started working on scenarios for this or that organisation ended up sooner or later as consultants and those who still are working for business companies or governmental agencies use regularly external consultants (and may be plan to become one sometimes in the future). So a largely positive answer to this question was to be expected. The analysis must therefore concentrate not on the “if” but on the “how”.

An external consultant can give an important contribution to scenario building and planning within an organisation by bringing a detached, unbiased and fresh view of a situation. The consultant can concentrate on the process, focus on the method, rather than being too much involved in the final outcome: he or she can provide a neutral perspective which cannot stem from the inside. The role of consultants is critical in finding ways to internalise the scenario process with the client. The consultant is (it is to be hoped) a specialist in scenario building and in scenario planning and probably above all in reaching conclusions from the vast mass of information which is usually the output of a scenario process. Consultants are, or at least can be, catalysts of new ideas and new ways of thinking as well as facilitators of new processes. Familiar with the futuristic literature as well as the futuristic methodology, they can add the “big picture” of the external world to the knowledge of an industry possessed by the management of an organisation. In sum, scenario building and scenario planning both require learning: and consultants can provide that important part of learning which the staff of an organisation normally do not have.

This is a great deal and certainly enough to justify the use of consultants. But there are still two big problems: the first is the choice of consultants, the second is the interaction with the client. One characteristic of consultants in the scenario area is that they usually work in small companies of a few people or a few dozen people, when they are not in very small groups or even lonely wolfs. This is, after all, a small world. Big consulting companies have paid so far relatively little attention to the scenario area, probably because it is a niche where there are not many big profits to reap. Actually, it seems that when large consulting companies have to work on scenarios for their clients, they hire scenario experts as their own consultants.

There are, in any case, a few dissenting opinions. For some experts, the use of consultants is helpful, but not all that necessary: the only real advantage they provide is to ask questions which would not be asked by an internal staff. In the real world, If a topic is really confidential, the recourse to external consultants is limited or nil. In any case, the work should be done primarily in – house, with the external consultants providing essentially some advice on how to guide the process. The involvement of consultants should decrease in the course of the process and could disappear altogether when the most difficult and delicate choices pertaining to scenario planning are concerned.

7. A glimpse into the future: i) scenarios, what for?

Let us now turn to the future. Scenarios, we assumed in paragraph 3, are here to stay: but what for? what will be the areas where their use will gain more ground?

A lor of the answer depends of course from the definition and even more from the taxonomy used to classify scenarios. If scenarios are classified by their generic content (global scenarios, industry scenarios, …what…if…scenarios, etc.) then there are little doubts that for business companies industry scenarios will continue to be the most important, while for non – profit organisations scenarios will be more and more centred on specific problems. For governmental agencies scenarios connected with a particular geographical area or …what…if scenarios will maintain the lead.

Another possible classification divides scenarios according to the classical PEST factors (politics, economics, society and technology). Here again commercial companies will be mainly interested in the analysis of the interrelations between economic factors and technological factors, whereas political and social factors will remain more or less in the background. For no – profit organisations and governmental agencies the mix will be varied, according to the specific interests and priorities of the client /user.

So far, nothing really new. But looking towards the future it is important to draw the attention not so much on generic content or on “factors”, which might assume a more or less static countenance, but on factors seen as agents of change. Experts were therefore asked to look at those areas where factors will most probably play this role: new products and new technologies, societal changes, political changes and international relations 12 .

The majority of the experts did not prioritise among these factors of change, considering all of them more or less equally important as subjects for future scenarios. One of the reasons quoted for this is that the approach is actually the best way to underline the interconnections between the various factors governing a system; another that a priority order would imply that the scenario approach is most appropriate for specific uses, while it is “global” insofar as the possible applications are concerned. This attitude is on the whole logical, bearing in mind that one of the most important advantages attributed to the scenario approach is that it allows the simultaneous employment of heterogeneous factors both in their hard (or quantitative) and in their soft (or qualitative) form.

For others, however, all the factors of change are equal…but some are more equal than others. New products and new technologies rank first for those who place the factors in some order of importance as future areas of interest for scenario builders and planners. Specific areas mentioned include, besides technology management in general, communications and information technology, biotechnologies and the biomedical developments, new materials, energy sources, etc. To these factors also some interrelated ones could be added, such as new business models as well as the analysis of the core competencies and of the best practices: this is interesting because it implies a wider concept of technological change, including in it also changes in management and organisational practices.

Social changes also arouse some interest as possible areas of future application of scenarios, while in this light political changes and international relations are seen preferably in connection with other agents of change, including themselves (i.e., political changes in connection with changes in international relations). But as usual, it is internal policy to be a projection of foreign policy and not the other way round (with the possible partial exception of the USA) ; political changes are seen as the dominant factor of the two. Scenarios aimed at the or at the effects of globalisation will obviously include international relations as one of the most important aspects. Political changes are important as simultaneously cause and consequence of the redefinition of roles and boundaries between the public and private sectors, between the state and the market, between the worker and the consumer.

The only agent of change not included in the original list submitted to the experts but quoted in any case by only a few of them, were “values and culture”: this partial disregard probably reflects the period we are going through of intense de-ideologisation. But in general, the focus of the scenario approach in terms of content is not seen as due to change considerably in a time horizon of 5 – 10 years. This is a bit surprising, considering that the impression one could draw from perusing the managerial literature 13 as well as the answers of the panel is that dramatic changes are expected both in the complexity and in the rate of change of the world at large.

8. A glimpse into the future: ii) structures, structures...

This paragraph is logically connected with paragraph 5, where the state of the art of the scenario approach was discussed from a methodological point of view. To simplify an otherwise very difficult task, the question was posed in very broad terms, asking whether scenario building and scenario planning will rely in the future more or less on structured methodologies and procedures, where “structured” means more formalised and quantitatively based 14. And almost exactly reflecting the uncertainties and the contradictions emerged in the analysis of the present situation, the experts appear evenly split in their anticipation of future methodologies used in scenario building and scenario planning.

Those who anticipate a larger recourse to structured methods argue that this will be caused by the need to improve the efficiency of scenarios, an evolution which is already under way. In other words, a more structured approach is needed to ensure that scenarios cover all the issues and factors in the organisation’s environment as well as to provide a greater uniformity in the coverage and presentation of the “stories about the future”. This last requirement is essential to pass over the gist of the scenario throughout the organisation. Modelling, either by computer or by hand, can fasten people attention and simplify the decision making process. However, this by no means implies that scenarios should be more elaborate and complex than they are now: management patience is wearing thin on technical excesses in management tools, hence the need for future scenarios to be simple and fast, to convey clearly an image of the future and to restrict the use of mathematical, statistical and computer jargons to the bare, essential minimum.

The reasons cited for anticipating that in the future scenario building and planning will not be more structured than now (or even less structured) are also quite stringent. Scenarios cannot be reduced to mathematical formulas, each futuristic study is a case apart, if the issues are not grasped (and this is basically an intuitive process) no model can generate a good forecast. Serious doubts are raised in particular about the diffusion of computer models. They are subject to get locked into one particular heuristic set of underlying assumptions or, as hinted in paragraph 5, to let the form prevail on the content, with little benefit for the learning process. Besides, these models are totally inept in handling soft concepts, such as human values, the human experience, the human touch, etc. and yet these concepts are the templates of factors which can be very important in working out a scenario. In general, computer modelling should be approached with caution and with a clear sense of their limitations. Among the latter is the simple fact that if it is the computer that generates the scenarios the management of the concerned organisation will hardly see this output as their own .

9. Who are the pack leaders?

In spite of the lack of paradigms discussed in paragraph 2, the literature on scenario building and planning is relatively abundant: the two most important periodicals on future studies, Futures and The Future Research Quarterly frequently publish essays on the theory and practice of scenarios, while books published on the subject in, say, the last ten years could easily fill up a couple of shelves in any researcher’s library 15.

Which are the most influential of these books (needless to say, “influential” is not necessarily synonymous with “good”, even if the two concepts may coincide)? Both the answers of the panel and (however to a somewhat lesser extent) the scenario literature give an unambiguous answer: Peter Schwartz’s The Art of the Long View (Schwartz, 1992). The answer, though perhaps not unexpected, is in a sense surprising. The book was certainly seminal at the beginning of the Nineties and had the great merit of popularising scenarios as a management tool, but it is rather flimsy from the theoretical point of view and does not really tell much on how to build scenarios and use them in strategic planning. It is, in other words, an good introduction to the subject but one would expect practitioners to need something more. This is perhaps another and indirect confirm of the lack of a unifying scientific theory on scenario building and planning 16.

Other authors quoted in this connection are certainly Michel Godet (Godet, 1987 and 1995 ) with a particular emphasis on his contributions on morphological analysis, Kees van der Heijden (van der Heijden, 1996), Jill Ringland (Ringland, 1998). The name of Richard Slaughter is also well known and so is his recent book (Slaughter, 1996). The two articles published by Pierre Wack on the Shell experience with scenarios (Wack, 1985), though now dated, still receive some attention. Herman Kahn (Kahn & Wiener, 1969) is occasionally still considered by some as worth an intellectual pilgrimage. Outside of the specific literature on scenarios one book by the Nobel laureate Herbert Simon (Simon, 1969), probably for the chapter on the architecture on complexity, is still considered of some value.

English is so predominant nowadays that books and articles published in other languages have just a “domestic” market. For the French – speaking countries Godet is again the most quoted; for the German – speaking ones the books by Ute von Reibnitz (von Reibnitz, 1991) and the one by Gausemeier et al. (Gausemeier, Fink & Schlake, 1995). For Sweden Mats Lindgren (Lindgren, 1996), for Italy Eleonora Barbieri Masini (Masini, 1993) and Antonio Martelli (Martelli, 1992), for Russia Igor Bestushev- Lada 17 are quoted. Apart from all these contributions, there is also a number of books and articles in English and in other languages quoted only occasionally and which therefore, independently from their content, cannot really be considered as very influential.

10. Conclusions

Scenarios were born to go beyond the impasse caused by single – point forecasts obtained by means of the extrapolation of past trends in a period when discontinuities and turbulence made it more and more difficult to plan on this basis. In scenario building and planning however tho role of the techniques is important but not unique: equally important is the quality of the people that use the tool, in Schwartz’s words, “their ability to rediscover the world”.

Scenario builders and planners must therefore be before all else capable of communicating their experiences and anticipations to those who will carry out the task of using them to design the aims of their organisations. But communicating is not enough. Such a person must muster at least a few of the main relevant techniques, must know a lot about many things – economics, history, society, technology – must be capable of learning fast because his / her services are frequently needed in the heat of a competitive battle or under tight time pressures.

Scenario builders and planners must also possess some philosophical qualities, primarily an insatiable quest for knowledge and a great flexibility because scenario building and planning is above all a great effort at “trying and retrying” 18.

It has to be recognised that not always people involved in scenarios have answered to this profile. This has largely depended, as noted in the previous paragraphs, on the demand for scenarios tends to fluctuate on the fact that the absence of a recognised school of thought on scenarios which would prompt adequate investments in academia and in the consulting profession, on the fierce competition which attracts talents in other activities. And yet this is the decisive issue: without a constant inflow of young people who are eager to measure themselves in using this approach to build and plan for the future, scenarios will at best remain one of the many tools that some managers may use when they deem them useful, i.e. very occasionally.

If they believe in their approach, scenario theoreticians and practitioners must therefore engage themselves in a battle to redefine contents and techniques of scenario building and planning in order to convince of their validity, not just possible users, but primarily a new generation of people.

Antonio Martelli


  1. On the use of scenarios in strategic planning in particular see Gausemer (1996), Hodgson (1992), Mason (1994), Ogilvy (1996), Schoemaker (1996) and Thomas (1994). .
  2. See the methodological note at the end of the paper.
  3. See Drucker, 1999.
  4. A good example is contained in Ismail – Sabri Abdalla, Egypt 2020. A Futures Research Project, Third World Forum, Cairo, May 1998.
  5. A comment made by Igor Bestushev – Lada in the panel.
  6. On the use of scenarios in decision – making processes see also Duncan (1994).
  7. An exhaustive analysis of the relationship between the future studies and the identification of new issues and problems is in Denny (Denny, 1999).
  8. To my knowledge, the first attempt to propose a taxonomy between the various methods to build scenarios is in Huss (Huss, 1988).
  9. See e.g. Kelly, 1976.
  10. Cross – impact analysis derives directly from the Delphi method: on the latter and its applications see in particular Adler and Ziglio, passim (1996). I have analysed in detail the evolution and prospects of cross – impact analysis in an extended paper of mine (Martelli, 1999).
  11. On the use of fuzzy logics in scenario building see Canarelli (1995) and Misani (1997).
  12. International relations are one of the most important agents of change: and it is rather surprising that, after having been the first area of concern for one the prominent founding fathers of the scenario approach, Herman Kahn, they have been largely neglected in these last decades.
  13. See again Drucker (1999)
  14. To emphasise the concept of “structured” the example of computer simulation models was quoted in the question.
  15. And this just for books published in English. If books published in other languages would be added, the list would certainly grow substantially longer. The same holds also for articles and essays.
  16. An advantage which contributed to the succes of Schwartz’s book is that is was translated in several European languages.
  17. These two books in Russian are however, in the words of the author, reports on research projects on “Expert Scenario Monitoring”: Igor Bestushev – Lada, Perspectives of Russia Transformation, Moscow, 1998 and Estimated and Desired Changes of Education System in Russia, Moscow, 2000.
  18. “Trying and retrying” (provando e riprovando) was the motto of the Accademia del Cimento founded in Florence in 1687 with the purpose of verifying inductive laws by means of experiments.
A methodological note

This paper is based on three sources.
  • The answers to a questionnaire sent to a panel of 50 experts involved in scenario building and planning to which 28 answers were received. The questionnaire allowed a high degree of liberty in the format of the answers. Many of the respondents contributed also with a paper of their own of various lengths. And here are the names of the respondents: Stephen Aguillar – Millàn, Hans Ambros, Steven Ames, Igor Bestushev – Lada, Diane Campbell – Hunt, Duane Dale, Robert Floran, Jay Forrest, Hans Graf, Harjolf Grupp, Rolf Homan, Jim King, Denis Loverdige, Douglas Kinney, Mats Lindgren, Christian Lutz, Jim MacKay, Pentti Malaska, Josephson Malin, Mika Mannermaa, Eleonora Barbieri Masini, Stephen Millett, Erich Priewasser, Oliver Schlake, Ute von Reibnitz, Mario Unnia, Ian Wilson, Azel Zweck.
  • A thorough analysis of the current literature on scenarios (see the references) Integrated by a more superficial analysis of the literature on future studies.
  • My own experience in scenario building and scenario planning, which is now 16 years old (after a prolonged experience in economic analysis and strategic management consulting and teaching).

Note . The publications marked with an asterisk ° are those on which citations of books about scenario building and planning were checked and used – together with the citations made by the panel – to draft paragraph 9.

° Adler, Michael and Ziglio, Erio, editors, Gazing into the Oracle. The Delphi Method and its application to Social Policy and Public Health, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London 1996

° Benassoli Paul, La planification par scénarios: AXA France 2005, Conservatoire National d’Arts et des Métiers, Paris, 1995

° Campbell – Hunt, Diane, The Contributions of Scenarios to Strategic Management, New Zealand Journal of Strategic Management, October 1998

° Canarelli, Patrick, Fuzzy Scenarios, in Scenario Building. Convergences and differences, Institute for Perspective Technological Studies, Seville, and European Commission / Joint Research Centre, Bruxelles (proceedings of a seminar which took place in Paris in September 1995)

De Groot, Adriaan D., Methodology. Foundations of inference and research in the behavioural sciences, Mouton, The Hague – Paris, 1969

Drucker, Peter F., Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Butterworth – Heinemann, Oxford, 1999

° Duncan. Norman E., Scenarios Designed to Improve Decision Making, Planning Review, 1994, March – April

FRQ / 1999, seven articles on the issue of Technology Forecasting in USA, Austria, Russia, the Commission of the European Union, some OECD countries, etc., Futures Research Quarterly, 1999, Fall

Gausemer J., Fink A. and Schlake O., Szenario – Management – Planen und Fuehren mit Szenarien, Carl Hanser verlag, Munich, 1995

° Georgantzas, Nicholas G. and Acar, William, Scenario – driven Planning. Learning To Manage Strategic Uncertainty, Quorum Books, Westport / London, 1996

° Godet, Michel, Scenarios and Strategic Management, Butterworth, London, 1987

Godet, Michel, Scénarios globaux à l’horizon 2000. Analyse morphologique et probabilisation, Conservatoire National d’Arts et des Métiers, Paris, 1995

Gordon, Theodore, Trend Impact Analysis, in Jerome C. Glenn (ed.), Futures Research Methodology. The Millennium Project, The United Nations University, 1996

° Hodgson, Anthony, Strategic Thinking with Scenarios. A Management Process for Navigating Uncertainty, Futures Research Quarterly, 1992, Winter

Huss, William R., A Move Towards Scenario Analysis, International Journal of Forecasting, 1988, n. 3

Kelly, P., Further comments on cross- impact analysis, Futures, 1976, n. 8.

Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962 – 1970

Lindgren, Mats, Scenarioplanering, Konsultforlaget, Uppsala, 1996

Martelli, Antonio, Analisi strategica mediante scenari. Dal macro al micro ambiente: teorie e metodi (Strategic analysis by means of scenarios. From the macro to the micro environment: theories and methodologies), Etas Libri, Milano, 1992

Martelli, Antonio,. “Tessere e tempo. L’analisi di impatto incrociato: evoluzione e stato dell’arte” (Tesserae and time. Cross-impact analysis: evolution and state-of-the-art), Sitea, Milano, 1999.

° Masini Barbieri Eleonora, Why Futures Studies?, Grey Seal, London, 1993

° Mason, David H., Scenario –based Planning: Decision Model for the Learning Organization, Planning Review, 1994, March – April

° Misani, Nicola, Scenari con le mappe cognitive fuzzy. Le dinamiche complesse al servizio dell’analisi strategica (Building scenarios by means of cognitive fuzzy maps. Complex dynamics to serve strategic analysis), Economia & Management, Milano, 1997, n.3

° Ogilvy, James, Scenario Planning as the Fulfilment of Critical Theory, Futures Research Quarterly, 1996, Summer

Porter, Michael E., The Competitive Advantage,

° Ringland, Gill, Scenario Planning. Managing for the Future, John Wiley & Sons, NEW York, 1998

Schoemaker, Paul J.H., Scenario Planning: A Tool for Strategic Planning, Sloan Management Review, 1996, Winter

° Schwartz, Peter, The Art of the Long View. Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, Bantam Doubleday Dell, New York, 1991 – 1996

Simon, Herbert, The Sciences of the Artificial, The M.I.T. Press, cambridge, Mass., 1969

Slaughter, Richard (ed.), The Knowledge Base of Future Studies, Volumes 1 – 3, DDM Media Group, Futures Study Centre, Hawthorn, Australia, 1996

Thomas, Charles W., Scenario Planning at a Finance and Insurance Company, Planning Review, 1994, March – April

° van der Heijden, Kees, Scenarios. The Art of Strategic Conversation, John Wiley & Sons, 1996

° von Reibnitz, Ute, Scenario Techniques, McGraw – Hill Book Company GmbH, Hamburg, 1988

Wack, Peter, Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead, Harvard Business Review, September – October 1985; and Scenarios: Shooting the Rapids, Harvard Business Review, November – December 1985

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