Skills for Impact - Scenario Planning: Context and Application

Course Description: 

Skills for Impact Program, Elective module, MPA Year 1 and Year 2 Students

Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, the global financial crisis, Brexit, the Ebola epidemic, the election of Donald Trump among others, all caught “experts” and policy makers by surprise. This points to the fact that public policy is often ill equipped to better operate in an increasingly complex environment let alone anticipate the future in times of ever growing complexity and uncertainty.

Scenario planning is one tool that allows policymakers and stakeholders alike to better anticipate and impact the future and consider the long-term implications of their policy actions. Instead of trying to predict one single policy path that appears most likely or desired, policy makers and strategists using scenario planning seek to construct multiple histories of the future to better anticipate changes in our constantly emerging and highly complex environment. Scenario planning can thus help to explore strategic reform options from the perspective of alternative futures in order to integrate potential threats and opportunities at an early stage to proactively shape the future.

The goal of this SFI module is twofold. First, to provide students with some aspects of the broader context that policymakers should situate scenario planning in. Second, to engage students in a concrete scenario building exercise in order for them to understand the process as well as the outcomes of this strategic planning technique.

To provide some of the broader context within which scenario planning operates, students will first be given a brief introduction to the field of complexity theory and public policy. Scenario analysis very much embraces the notion that our social, economic and political environment is a highly complex system subject to high uncertainties, unknown exogenous shocks and endogenously emergent properties over which public policy has less control than we commonly assume. This makes any longer term policy prescriptions and predictions highly questionable. In preparing for the scenario planning exercise itself, students can thus benefit from a better understanding how the science of complexity reconstitutes public policy in theory and practice.

A second important contextual element related to scenario planning is human psychology. The section “Mind Your Mind” very briefly introduces students to several mental trappings or cognitive biases that we all often fall prey to and should be especially aware of as strategists, policymakers and scenario planners. For example, presentism, the confirmation bias, anchoring and mirror imaging all prevent us from thinking in terms of scenarios or, seen the other way around, can be at least partially overcome by applying team based scenario analysis to public policy making. We will discuss these phenomena and, time permitting, operationalize them in some team exercises.

The second goal of this SFI module is to understand how and when structured scenario exercises are useful for businesses and governments engaged in strategic planning and risk management. We will gain practical experience in how these exercises are conducted, the outcomes they produce, and how they are incorporated into corporate and official plans. Human beings are very poor at intuitively understanding risk and the future; scenario analysis is one of several techniques that can help us to perform these tasks better.

Learning Outcomes: 

By the end of this SFI module students will

  • have developed a deeper understanding of the uncertainties and complexities that public policy encounters;
  • have been exposed to some of the tools to understand approach complex problems;
  • be cognizant and understand the impact of cognitive biases such as "presentism", "confirmation bias", "anchoring", "mirror imaging" and others on decision/policy making;
  • appreciate the value of "safe" and "creative" failure;
  • recognize the rationale, purpose and value of scenario planning;
  • have become acquainted with some of the basic tools and methods of scenario planning;
  • have built a set of scenarios in a team setting and discuss the outcomes.
  • brainstorming in response to instructors’ requests in the weeks before the course;
  • full class attendance and participation;
  • quiz based on the required readings;
  • team presentations summarizing and discussing the readings;
  • team work and active participation during the scenario building exercise.