An exercise to imagine possible futures by exploring how certain trends and uncertainties might play out.
This activity can work with any group size. With groups larger than 12, it’s worthwhile to do some prep work to identify scenario sets ahead of time (through interviews, for instance) so that the time in the full group is spent responding to each of the scenarios.
80+ minutes. Includes 10m for framing, instructions, and setup (including getting people into groups), 20m to identify possible polarities to explore, 30m for groups to explore a particular scenario set, and 20m for full group reflections. You can repeat this exercise more than once using different scenario sets.
Complex issues are difficult to define, as they have no clear beginning or end. They also have no readily apparent solution, and we cannot accurately predict the path ahead. Consequently, we have to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and modify strategies as we learn what works and what does not.
Sensing into different scenarios for the future can help us make sense of how different trends or forces might shape the system, and how e might react to or prepare for those situations. The purpose of this exercise is not to predict the future, as that is impossible. Rather, it is to imagine multiple distinct ways that the future might unfold so that we can be better prepared to adapt as circumstances inevitably change.
With groups of more than 7 people it is worthwhile to break into groups of 4-5. Each group should have their own space and multiple sheets of large Post-It flip-chart paper laid flat on the table or posted on a wall, each with a blank 4-box matrix (you will need a separate sheet for each scenario you intend to construct). Each group should also have one black marker per person (something that is easily visible but still easy to write with, such as a fine-point Sharpie).
If you are convening virtually, have each group meet in a separate breakout room, and provide them with a shared virtual whiteboard (such as Mural or Jamboard) that has been prepped for the session.
The first step in this process is to identify different trends or forces that could affect the future. You may have participants identify these trends or forces in small groups, or you can save time by identifying them ahead of time through interviews. A framing question to consider is: “What trends or forces, internally or externally, might have a significant influence on our future?”
Each trend or force can have a positive outcome or a negative outcome, creating a polarity. Examples of potential polarities include: abundant funding vs. lack of funding; high-trust in the system vs. low-trust in the system; a certain policy passes vs. the policy does not pass; economy is strong vs. economy is weak; the republican politician is elected vs. the democratic politician is elected; institutional adoption vs. lack of adoption; or a specific issue is valued by the community vs. not valued.
Once you have identified a number of different polarities, choose two that are most compelling and combine them together by turning them into a 4-box matrix, with one of the polarities on the X axis and the other on the Y axis (the polarities can be related or distinct). Each group should then write the first scenario set onto their paper using their 4-box matrix (ensure that all groups are applying each polarity to the same axis, so that their 4-box matrices look the same).
For example, you might choose to start by exploring the following two trends: Political Support and Financial Support. Placing political support on the X axis and financial support on the Y axis would yield this matrix shown below:
Having drawn their matrix with the appropriate X and Y axes, each group is invited to sense into what that future might look and feel like within each box or “quadrant.” Ask questions like:
The purpose of this exercise is to look out ahead into the future, so these last two questions - how might we respond and plan ahead - are critical. The point of this exercise is not to predict the future, but to prepare for the future, whatever it may be.
Then, ask the groups to write notes in each quadrant about how they might respond to that particular scenario, and to name each of the four quadrants. A completed matrix might look like the example shown below:
Back in the full group, have people report out the following:
You can repeat this exercise multiple times using different polarities to create different scenario sets on a new sheet of paper.
To dig deeper into the process of exploring future scenarios, see: What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits by Diana Scearce, Katherine Fulton, and the Global Business Network community.