Mental models, worldviews, and the challenge to perceive unpleasant futures!

Are the ”wrong trousers” here again, but now enabling the war in Ukraine? Analysing why the Kyoto protocol did not solve the climate crises professors Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner claim [1] that we believed in the wrong mechanisms, we used the wrong trousers. Likewise, the world view in many Western democracies could not align itself with a scenario of a full-scale “traditional” war in Europe. Such a scenario did not exist in the public domain, and probably not in most closed chambers of leaders, not political nor business. Our western logic said it would be irrational or downright stupid. Our strong belief in institutions and mechanisms for peace, like the UN and the OSCE, said it would be impossible. The right for sovereign nations to decide their path forward said it would be wrong. Spheres of influence were a thing of the past. We were unable to put all what we had witnessed, from Grozny through Georgia and Syria to Crimea into a scenario which conflicted with what we believed was rational. And on February 24th, 2022, the ”special military operation” started – Russian tanks, missiles, and troops began to shed Ukrainian blood.

Does this mean that scenario and foresight practitioners are unable to provide proper guidance to decision makers? Hopefully not. But the profession must acknowledge the fact that many times we have failed to either point to futures that do not follow the traditional rational, western liberal worldview of humans and how social systems evolve, and/or to get traction for unpleasant futures.

Perhaps this is a consequence of not thinking hard enough, or of an inability to distance oneself from the issue, thus being too close to see what might happen. Today’s scenario practitioners, or professional dreamers [2], are very much pressed on time, focusing on effectiveness of processes etc. There is not much room for such deep thinking that Pierre Wack, who developed the corporate scenario practice at Shell, was famous for. He devoted significant time to meditation and deep reflection, which led to unique understanding of how systems might evolve. Sufi mysticism and Zen Buddhism were, as we understand it, enablers of his ability to perceive the future with mental models different from scenario practitioners whose perception is bound by our western rationalism. By devoting more time to re-perceiving, one might have avoided conclusions about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine as having no sense.

Another issue to pay attention to is the manufacturing [3] of scenarios. Mostly we see very structured manufacturing processes, processes that have an air of engineering. In those processes, choices of building blocks are made by logical reasoning bounded within prevailing value systems. Sometimes wild cards are thrown into the scenario puzzle, but the question is how much they influence the thinking if they do not fit the dominant mental models. Just think about the Talebian Black Swans. When using the end products, the scenarios, we forget about all the choices we made in the manufacturing process. Everything we did not pay sufficient attention to, things that did not fit the dominant logic, such as a new war in Europe.

Creativity comes into play first when making the scenarios come to life as stories of plausible futures, but it is far too late and does not change the fact that in most cases, the underlying scenarios are only different extensions of the present in new packages. And it is not because we, as Wack instructed us, created one surprise-free scenario to ensure managerial attention. The challenge is very much like the one the late Clayton Christensen described when addressing Excel and MBA students as the biggest obstacles for innovation. We need to increase our abilities to imagine, to think the un-thinkable.

There seems to be an increasing risk that we continue to use wrong trousers. The war in Ukraine seems to speed up a new geopolitical, bipolar structure. Our value systems might hinder us from correctly assess the dynamics in e.g.  Asia and how China’s position is evolving. We build stronger alliances with those who share the same understanding of the world. The US secretary of treasury, Janet Yellen expressed that the US would now favour “the friend-shoring of supply chains to a large number of trusted countries” that share “a set of norms and values about how to operate in the global economy”. Although such a development makes it easier to play in your own sandbox, it creates new risks as you do not understand what is happening in another sandbox.

Professional dreamers must learn their lesson. Scenario planners must adopt more lenses to their work, letting conflicting worldviews and value systems create a constructive dynamic platform for perceiving and re-perceiving. Different trousers must come into play. And decision makers, the clients of the scenarios, must be kept onboard the learning journey into futures.

[1] The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy Gwyn Prins & Steve Rayner A Joint Discussion Paper of the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization, University of Oxford and the MacKinder Centre for the Study of Long-Wave Events, London School of Economics – 2007

[2] See e.g. Professional dreamers: The past in the future of scenario planning. Cynthia Selin, Arizona State University in Sharpe & van der Heijden. (2007) Scenarios for Success: Turning Insights into Action.

[3] The term manufacturing is picked up from a slide from the Oxford Scenario Programme

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