How Oxford Helps Leaders Face The Complex And Uncertain Future

Transitional Space

In the Strategic Reframing forward, Kees van der Heijden, another Shell planning office alumnus who has greatly advanced scenarios thinking, says “a management system driven by macro-predictions and forecasts has proven too narrow to deal with turbulence.

“We need to redesign the strategic management system to restore the balance between the complexity of the system managed and that of the management system .”

Restoring this balance is what scenario planning offers.

“We ground it in Winnicott’s Transitional Space,” says Wilkinson, referring to the psychologist Donald Winnicott famous for the concepts of a “transitional object” and “transitional space”—being the object or area by which the self navigates and learns its relationship with the outside world.

“We take this into the classroom, and we get them to understand that the scenario planning process is ‘a transitional space.’”

When a firm navigates its relationship with the outside world, particularly an apparently hostile or at least disagreeable TUNA world, the pathologies of the organization emerge. “They fall into fragmentation—lack of a common agenda or, alternatively, complete groupthink and complete blindspots,” says Wilkinson.

The question is how do you create a healthy what van der Heijden calls “strategic conversation” that allows leaders and experts to consider ideas that are not familiar to them, and to disagree with each other safely.

Contestation Of Future

Says Wilkinson: “The scenario process in Shell originated from trying to stop people pushing forward pet projects and enable a contestation of future that allowed better decisions, including investment decisions, to be made in the present.”

While Shell was and remains the poster-boy company for scenario planning, its methodology, or at least what is understood and represented as its methodology by knock-off scenario consultants, has also been responsible the banalities of utopias or dystopias or techno-armageddon future narratives that are unhelpful to the real process of decision-making for leaders facing everyday uncertainty.

“The (bulk of the scenarios) literature talks about methodology and theory as process: There are the steps—‘the 3-step process’ or ‘the 6-step process’ you go through. It is a selling logic! There is so much ‘production’ of scenarios, so little effective use of them,” says Wilkinson.

Raising the quality of scenario planning is very much part of the OSP’s agenda. The program was started in the early 2000s by Ramirez, joined soon after by Wilkinson, and has been continually refined as the field itself has come to understand the many pitfalls that scenario projects have fallen into.

“We looked at lots of training programs on scenarios. You follow these-and-these steps and end up with 2×2 matrix and you think you’ve done well. But 99% of those fail. So we asked ourselves what do they need to know in order not to fail at that point?

“At the OSP you learn from all the mistakes the field has made over the last 60 years.”

As part of this, Wilkinson explains how the OSP executive education week has been redesigned to focus delegates not on method—is there a right or a wrong way to do it—but on “‘where does it fit in with the purpose of the organization, its vision, mission, or strategy?’”

This requires taking OSP student delegates well past creating analytical content for scenarios, towards a deeper understanding of how the scenario process needs to dovetail with organizational purpose and the leadership agenda.

Institutional context is woven into good practice. “Good for us means they are useful and usable, as opposed to analytically credible but nobody has the slightest interest in them,” says Wilkinson.

Tram-Lined

“When the delegates first come in (to the OSP) the question you have to work really hard at is ‘the forecasting question,’ because they are so tram-lined into forecasting they can’t break out of that mode.”

Over the week delegates learn to “have to have deeper understanding of what the intervention that is being brought to bear by leadership is, and then what does that mean that scenario planning process need to be?

“Working for different clients ‘helps delegates understand where they have choices around what they are doing and how they are doing it.’”

“They are not learning not to produce a set of scenarios, but to design a scenario-based intervention in their organizations,” says Wilkinson.

This is why embedding learning with the real problems of real-world clients is intrinsic to the OSP teaching process . Delegates learn about the political setting as well as the social process of the client, because what works for one won’t necessarily work for the other.

Over the course of the client service process, the student delegate groups go through the full learning-to-build scenarios cycle twice—they get two bites at both scenario-building and client-engagement.

This is to reinforce learning, as one may expect, but an iterative, revisiting, relearning process is what defines the Oxford scenarios method, and what it is fundamentally teaching practitioners to do when making client-worthy scenarios, wherever and whenever they do it.

According to Strategic Reframing: “Scenario planning as we see it in the OSPA is ideally not a linear ‘project’ with a beginning, middle, and end, nor (ideally) a one-off intervention, but is instead an iterative process that enables and sustains organizational learning.”

From Ramirez and Wilkinson: Strategic Reframing, Oxford University Press, 2016

“The delegates have a go at delivering as set in an intervention with their client, and they learn from that intervention a lot about what their client actually needs, and then they redesign their scenario intervention.

“That iteration of loops, building and using then rebuilding and reusing, is what makes the difference,” says Wilkinson.

To iterate, prototype, fail-fast, and rework, is an approach to that many fields, including strategy and scenario planning, have learned from design thinking.

The iterate-learn-rework model also helps would-be scenario practitioners understand that learning—about their client and its internal and external contexts, and the future it is facing—is at the heart of scenario-based management of a TUNA world .

The preferred term for a scenario practitioner in Strategic Reframing is not “scenario planner” or “scenario facilitator,” but “scenario learner.”