One of the most interesting aspects of Oxford Scenario Planning Approach (OSPA) – as outlined in the book Strategic Reframing by Rafael Ramirez and Angela Wilkinson (core Faculty at the Oxford Scenarios Programme at Oxford University’s Said Business School) – is the emphasis placed on attending to peoples’ “sense of the future”.
As they put it:
The OSPA is also centrally focussed on learning with rather than from scenario planning. This stance involves attending to the learner’s “sense of the future”. This is achieved in scenario planning by redirecting attention from self to context, and by mobilizing open systems thinking and model building in groups to access and share tacit knowledge and to generate more than one future context so that assumptions about the future can be surfaced, tested, contested, questioned and improved” (p.xiv)
Two further framing aspects of the OSPA are the idea that “the sense of the future is an aspect of our present” and the argument that one’s sense of the future can be enhanced via OSPA/scenario planning – that is:
by contrasting plausible alternative future contexts of a specific situation [i.e. multiple scenarios] of a specific person or group of actors through a cyclical process of reframing and reperception repeated over multiple interactions” (p.9).
Ramirez and Wilkinson further claim that one’s sense of the future has a major influence on “understanding, attention and action” (p.23) and that the specific form this “sense” takes is strategically important. That is, they claim that “an explicit and more flexible” (p.13) sense of the future has many strategic benefits:
An explicit and more flexible sense of the future can enable a shift from a reactive to a pre-active stance which supports strategic innovation (more options can be considered, as well as how they might unfold). This can increase organisational capacities (having thought through an alternative plan makes it easier to shift if required). Teams and organizations can become better at engaging with unexpected, less familiar, and uncomfortable future developments, and by learning with futures can identify new opportunities and options to transform and create their future” (p.13).
Further regarding peoples’ sense of the future, Ramirez and Wilkinson argue that scenario planning is “about how perceptual and conceptual frames in someone’s mind at a particular point in time can be usefully challenged” (p.87). This is also stated as follows: “Scenario planning as understood in the OSPA helps learners to take a critical stance” (p.57).
These statements also imply that such exercises should be, in part, tailored to the participants and their view(s)/mindset(s) – e.g. by addressing participants’/learners’ current sense(s) of the future. Ramirez and Wilkinson term these participants the “scenario planning learner[s]” and argue that a scenario planning exercise should be approached as a “strategic learning process” (p.3) and “learner-centric experience” (p.15) that is tailored to the specific learners that are involved.
Whilst there are other novel and interesting aspects of the OSPA – such as the core emphasis on reconsidering a present strategic situation/conundrum (rather than emphasising gaining knowledge about alternative possible futures), on frames and reframing, and on scenario planning as a purposeful intervention – here I want to briefly discuss the emphasis on attending to peoples’ sense of the future.
Like many aspects of the book, in my view this focus/approach is conceptually interesting and points towards useful ways scenario planning can be purposefully used but it’s too light-on both in terms of theory and practical detail and evidence-based guidance.
For me, three related key questions are inadequately explored in the book:
- What shapes a person’s “sense of the future” – what socio-psychological processes and related practices influence one’s sense of the future? What politico-economic dynamics (Petersen, 2011)? These questions point to the need for greater theoretical underpinning.
- What specific actions and skilled forms of ‘hands-on’ work are required to encourage the participants/learners to adopt a more critical stance (on their “sense of the future”) and, in doing so, reflect more deeply on their main “perceptual and conceptual frames”?
- To what extent can a scenario planning exercise (or similar exercise) influence a person’s sense of the future? Under what conditions? (Related to this we need to know what are realistic expectations for such exercises and what evidence supports these claims and practices)
In my view for a scenario planning process (or a similar exercise) to truly be a purposeful practice targeting peoples’ sense of the future, we need better answers to all of the above questions, especially question 1 – for example so interventions can be constructed to address key socio-psychological processes.
For example, my own research has also further suggested that peoples’ “sense of the future” is partly a function of their knowledge practices and the context/setting in which these practices are used. Unfortunately, the book only includes quite high-level discussion of many relevant contextual factors – such as by noting that scenario planning practitioners must “be critically attentive to issues of power” – and it provides very little on how scenario planning might purposefully augment and challenge existing knowledge practices and their influence on peoples’ core sense of the future.
The centrepiece of the book’s claims regarding the “how” is a model termed the reframing-reperception cycle (see the Figure below) and their argument that OSPA is a social process which unfolds via a complex mix of interacting cognitive and social processes. Ramirez and Wilkinson argue that strategic situations are always socially constructed (Chapter 1) and are subjectively “framed” by the involved actors. The related emphasis placed on cognitive “frames” and the ways that a scenario process can help to enable prospective “reframing” of a current strategic situation are similarly suggestive but in my view these discussions don’t get sufficiently at practical requirements and key challenges in enabling this.
In fairness, I should note that Chapter 4 – “Working with scenario planning learners” – comes closest to providing required practical guidance, particularly regarding a learner-centric approach. However, I found the guidance provided regarding the core focus on surfacing and challenging cognitive frames to be partial and, overall, inadequate. The main practical guidance for this seems to be: 1) conducting confidential pre-process interviews with all participants and key stakeholders – e.g. to surface the current framing – and then sharing the key findings with all participants/relevant individuals; 2) engaging “the learner’s mindset and sense of the future” (a learner-centric approach); 3) greater focus on the context-specific use of scenarios (they argue reframing and reperception occurs in the use of scenarios, not during their production); and 4) possible use of “scaffolding” style techniques which initially work with the “official future” of key actors within the organisation/setting and later challenging this frame; along with the core assumption that “learning with plausible alternative contextual environments” will “help minds reperceive” (p.88).
Similarly, I felt that other aspects/sections of the book don’t go sufficiently into the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’. For instance, Ramirez and Wilkson frequently suggest that a key benefit of OSPA is that such processes can accommodate disagreement and, moreover, enable disagreements to become “productive assets” (p.24). This is an interesting and important claim but I was unsatisfied by their account of this and by the limited evidence mobilised to support the claim and identify related causal mechanisms. Moreover, how does this occur and how can a practitioner avoid such an exercise entrenching conflict (rather than enabling disagreements to become “productive”). I’ve seen and gathered evidence of both outcomes in scenario planning exercises and my recent PhD research found that practitioner choices were often consequential in terms of to what extent disagreement was actively and productively engaged with and whether or not related conflicts were deepened or rendered more productive. However, a reader of Strategic Reframing will find little practical guidance on how to navigate such challenges.
The above criticisms and key questions could be useful starting points for further research on, and further conceptualisation of, scenario planning exercises used as purposeful interventions.
Petersen, A. (2011), The Politics of Bioethics, Routledge. (This book discusses the politics of expectations, especially their “politico-economic dynamics” – Chapter 2).
Ramirez, R. & Wilkinson, A. (2016), Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, Oxford University Press.