Scholars examining the increasing use of scenario-based techniques have recently argued that most existing writing on the use of these techniques fails to substantively address the potential pitfalls of such techniques. In this post I want to raise a specific issue: it has been argued that effectively conducting scenario planning “requires unbiased consideration of multiple futures” (Healey & Hodgkinson, 2008). However, in contrast to this objective, Healey & Hodgkinson argue that “biases toward single scenarios are likely to be evident in judgments and decisions made following scenario analysis” (p. 573).
They give three reasons why this is likely to occur, citing evidence that:
- Decision makers will be motivated to avoid uncertainty and reduce complexity and will, consequently, often be inclined to anchor on a particular favoured scenario even when considering multiple futures;
- Decision makers have a tendency to “anchor” on self-relevant scenarios – i.e., “those futures likely to have a greater impact on the status, goals, resources, and identities of the groups to which they belong”; and
- Decision makers tend to anchor their judgments on the first scenario that is considered.
As indicated by the use of terminology like “anchoring” effects this analysis draws heavily on psychological concepts. Anchoring effects are argued to have motivational and cognitive determinants. For instance, participants may be motivated to avoid uncertainty or reduce complexity
The tendency to focus prematurely on a single scenario can also be “an attempt to reduce ambiguity” (p. 574). Intriguingly, it is also argued that the pressure to justify scenarios to others through detail cognitive elaboration and the common practice of allotting different groups of decision makers to focus on constructing different (single) scenarios encourages participants to anchor on their own focal scenario. The net result is argued to be a human tendency to not fully engage with multiple futures.
In my own research I’ve recently gathered evidence of similar issues, e.g.:
- The tendency to use or emphasise particular scenario(s) rather than the whole set of scenarios, e.g. focussing on and giving greater credence to a single self-relevant or favoured scenario;
- The tendency to “play down” or ignore scenarios that call into question one’s own mental models;
- The tendency to opportunistically use the outputs of a scenario exercise in policy-making and/or decision-making processes, drawing out or concentrating on specific aspects most relevant to the argument that is being made (and ignoring the rest); and
- Non-participants opportunistically using the outputs of a scenario exercise in ways that could be described as motivated or biased consideration of a particular scenario rather than “unbiased consideration of multiple futures”.
One reaction to this might be ‘so what?!”. But that would be to ignore the major challenges that clearly face scenario planning practitioners if they seek to promote unbiased engagement with multiple futures. The ‘so what?’ reaction would also ignore the potential lessons for good practice, should we want to avoid (as much as is possible) bias toward a single scenario, e.g. for more effective facilitation.
Secondly, good decisions are often less likely to be made if decisions makers only (or mostly) consider a single scenario and this often has the same problems associated with the use of forecasting. For example, it is often claimed that more flexible planning and risk management is needed to adequately address uncertainty and complexity which requires engagement with multiple plausible futures.
Thirdly, if a process aims to achieve consensus then the tendency for different participants to “anchor” on different scenarios (e.g. on a self-relevant or favoured scenario) would militate against this.
Fourthly, ignoring such tendencies prevents generation of a better understanding of them and the extent to which they occur and why. For instance, political processes within organisations and society may contribute to these issues. Issues related to group identity or professional identity, worldviews and meaning may be involved. And the interests of actors are clearly also often very important.
What are your thoughts? Does this accord with your own experience?
If you’re looking for a comprehensive critical review of the literature on scenario planning I highly recommend ‘Troubling futures: Scenarios and scenario planning for organizational decision making’ by Healey, M. P. and Hodgkinson, G. P (from G. P. Hodgkinson, and W. H. Starbuck, editor(s), The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Decision Making, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 2008).