How Oxford Helps Leaders Face The Complex And Uncertain Future

First published 4/2016. Turbulent-Uncertain-Novel-Ambiguous (TUNA) is the acronym an Oxford University Executive Education program uses instead of the more familiar VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. But either way we understand the problem: The external environment changes rapidly and unpredictably, making leaders look silly. What worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow.

As TUNA pressures warp previously steady-state industries, executives respond by trying to predict the future, grappling with early-warning signals or trying to identify market or technology trends.

The five-day Oxford Scenarios Programme (OSP) offers a different path.

“At Oxford we try really hard to try to get through the futurology that’s out there, and (instead) power people who have resources and agency to do things better,” says Dr Angela Wilkinson, who teaches the program along with Saïd School Professor Rafael Ramirez.

Scenario Planning is a method of direction-finding and strategy formation that defines itself by non-prediction.  Scenarios are integrated narratives of how the future may unfold, with always two or more in a set. This avoids the brittleness of a singularly predicted future—which the unpredictable world will surely make nonsense of.

The OSP accepts about 40 delegates and—fairly unusually for executive education—also hosts two or three organizations as real-world “proto-clients,” providing live client situations for the delegates to work on .

Dr Angela Wilkinson leads a scenario planning workshop

Dr Angela Wilkinson leads a scenario planning workshop.

In the next program, April 25-29, 2016, the proto-clients are: a University (not Oxford) trying to manage faculty field research in the new era of geo-political risk; an FMCG ice-cream company concerned millennials aren’t buying its products; and a scholarly professional body struggling with how digitalization is eroding its centralized authority and journal-based business model.

“These live cases give the program a ‘clinical-research feel,’” says Wilkinson. “We used to use some form of a generalized case, like Harvard Business School cases. But that doesn’t prepare the delegates for what they are going to encounter in their organizations.

“Live clients reflect the ambiguity of the scenario planning reality they will find themselves in, how messy and difficult it is.”

The clients present their business situation late on Monday, and are then interviewed over dinner by the assigned delegate teams. Midweek there is a check-in teleconference lasting 1-2 hours during which the teams test their evolving framework. A half-day on Friday is given to client presentation and discussion of the implications.

For executives that don’t have a spare week and approaching £6,000 (about $8,400) to spend at Oxford’s Egrove Park executive education facility in England, co-incidentally Ramirez and Wilkinson have just published a book, Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach (Oxford University Press, 2016)  written to broaden access to the philosophy and methods of the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach (OSPA).

Strategic Reframing, OUP, 2016

Strategic Reframing, The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach. Oxford University Press, 2016

“Reframing” in the title refers to leaders’ mental frames—sometimes called mental models, or paradigms—that scenario planning targets. A key problem, arguably the key problem in successfully managing a TUNA world is “frame rigidity,” when a leader’s mental model is not wide enough or flexible enough to perceive (or to take seriously) all the alternative, plausible outcomes that matter.

Scenario planning invites multiple framings of an uncertain situation, making leaders more aware and conscious of the legacy frame they have unconsciously been using to make sense of the world.

According to Strategic Reframing: “Reframing occurs in the process of scenario planning when alternative scenarios describing future contextual environments are contrasted to reveal, test, and redefine the official future (given frame).

“By rehearsing actions with these alternative frames, new and better options for action can be identified and contribute to a re-perception of the present situation.”

Wilkinson is an alumna of renown planning office at Royal Dutch Shell and currently Head of Strategic Foresight at the OECD in Paris, where she describes her remit as “leading a project to upgrade it (strategic foresight).

“The OECD, like most organizations, is strongly oriented to ‘evidence-based policy.’ If you can’t quantify it, it can’t go in the conversation,” she says.

But if you just stick to the numbers you can end up ‘not learning’ because you just stick with the stuff you can measure as opposed to the stuff that’s important —which requires you to exercise judgment.

“Quantitative, evidence-based policy served us well in he last maybe 10 or 20 years before the financial crisis, when everybody thought everything was very steady state.

“You can manage by numbers but you can’t lead by them. Quality of judgment, of intervention, needs a more systemic understanding of why things happen, and are connected to each other.”

“The numbers matter, but so do the narratives,” says Wilkinson.