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 / Spring 2003 / Issue 30(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Man Who Saw the Future

The Gentle Art
By the time Mr. Wack left Shell, he had concluded that scenario planning, in itself, was not nearly effective enough at changing, as he put it, “the mental maps of managers.” The best way for me to explain this deficiency is to describe one of my own scenario projects, conducted for an Internet service provider at the height of the dot-com bubble.

We came up with four possible images of the future. Three represented glittering futures of easy success, and then there was the sad story called “Gruel,” in which the venture capital market for Internet entrepreneurs dried up. During our sessions, I tried but failed to coax the group to pay more attention to Gruel. Preparing for that future would have meant building some cash reserves, being more frugal, and focusing on short-term revenue streams. Had they done all that, they might still exist today. Had I paid better attention to changing their mental maps, I might have had the confidence to tell them not just that this worst-case scenario was plausible, but that it was predetermined. By not seeing the possibility of Gruel, my clients were helping to ensure that it would happen.

What, then, does it take to come up with the kind of scenario that makes people shed their natural defenses so they can understand and prepare for the futures that are inevitable, if only they could spot the factors that create them? Mr. Wack spent his last year with Shell traveling the world, trying to come up with an answer to this question. He returned with a single cryptic diagram labeled “the gentle art of reperceiving.” It showed a process involving not just study of the business environment (through scenarios), but a rigorous and intuitive examination of one’s own intent, of competitive advantage (à la Michael Porter), and of strategic options. But even Shell, which based a set of workshops on the Pierre Wack process, couldn’t make them stick.

It turns out that you can’t develop this kind of capability in a set of workshops — or even through an elite agency of analysts and internal consultants. If you truly want to create a “pack of wolves” attuned to the environment around them, then the people making decisions have to devote their careers to increasing their collective awareness of the outside world. Scenario planning, as Mr. Wack conducted it, provides precisely this kind of in-depth training over time. You research present key trends; you determine which are predictable and which are uncertain; you decide which uncertainties are most influential; you base some stories of the future on those uncertainties; you spend some time imaginatively playing out the implications of those stories; and then you use those implications to start all over again and develop a sense of the impending surprises that you cannot ignore.

Very, very occasionally, a company takes this way of using scenarios to heart. For instance, the South African energy company Sasol Ltd., working with a scenario practitioner named Louis van der Merwe, has used an elaborate year-long exercise to shift the entire culture of the company toward scenario thinking — in part by having managers throughout the company take part in writing and publishing their own highly polished scenario book. Only time will tell, of course, whether or not that translates into better results. Managers and executives already report themselves taking risks more confidently and seeing options more clearly, which is not usually the case after scenario exercises.

Successful companies typically have one or two people with the ability to see their environment clearly. Pierre Wack’s methodology, which he never fully articulated while he was alive, is a way of developing this aptitude throughout the organization. Companies that achieve this tend to remain out of public view for fear of being copied or outdone. (Sasol, for instance, is ruthlessly private about the content of its scenarios.)

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