Recently I’ve been reading Art Kleiner’s influential book The Age of Heretics, and Kees van der Heijden’s Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversations, which both consider Shell’s early experiments in the 1970s with scenarios and scenario-based planning techniques. These books both highlight that there is much more to this case than the simple “success story” that is so often told these days to sell-in new scenario planning projects.
Kleiner’s The Age of Heretics highlights the many early ‘false starts’, in which scenario teams failed to produce useful or meaningful scenarios (and had to, in effect, promise to come back next year with more to show for their efforts), and Pierre Wack’s difficultly communicating to Shell managers. Wack described his scenarios as being like “water on a stone”. They struggled to find ways of making the future clearly visible (i.e. making a new world tangible, somehow) and their analysis persuasive. Shell’s managers often walked away from Wack’s scenario presentations agry, demanding simpler answers (“just give me a number”) to their questions. These challenges remain very important today. Particularly fascinating was why the scenario-building group at Shell sought Pierre Wack’s involvement – he was seen as being the right communicator; someone with gifts for communication and sparking the imagination… but even he struggled with to achieve what he called “existential effectiveness”. Clearly, this remains an under-recognised part of futures work, and a timeless problem (e.g. termed the “cassandra effect” when repeated warnings are ignored).
One aspect of the stories told by van der Heijden in Scenarios stood out. He also noted that many senior managers at Shell ignored the futures scenarios that were produced in the early 1970s which warned about the likelihood of a major oil crisis. Interestingly, it took, in-part, some senior managers who saw the scenarios as well-aligned with their own agendas and desired initiatives to generate some major changes ‘on the ground’. They latched onto the scenarios to help them make the case for these initiatives/changes. The later oil shocks clearly helped to promote action, and legitimise scenario planning, but according to van der Heijden (who was later in charge of Shell’s scenario planning efforts) most manager’s continued to interpret the unfolding events as mere blips before a return to ‘business-as-usual’, instead of as the beginning of a new world. These stories are told by van der Heijden to emphasise the importance of ‘mental models’.
There’s much more that could be said, but it’s clear that the early Shell work had only patchy success for various reasons of continued relevance. The issue of when scenario planning is and isn’t influential in the firms/organisations that use it, and why, seems to be an important one to examine further. For making new worlds more ‘tangible’ recent experiments with “experiential futures” look quite promising (e.g. see the recent “Our plastic century” exhibit). For a great outline of Pierre Wack’s time at Shell see Art Kleiner’s 2003 article entitled “The Man Who Saw the Future” from the journal Strategy+Business.