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Beyond Data: The World of Scenario Planning

Constructing plausible plots in a world that defies linear logic by George A. Goens

The principal at Isaac Newton Middle School stood in front of the school's 85 staff members to welcome them to a new academic year. She mentioned how the school district's new strategic plan had important implications for their school, and she complimented those staff who spent time working on the plan with the consultants and the central-office staff.

"Accountability today is high, and we must measure what we have accomplished using hard data, not speculation or opinions," the principal said enthusiastically. "We face a very important strategic goal concerning discipline. We want to reduce student discipline referrals to the office and suspensions by 15 percent over our benchmark total from last year.

"To gauge our progress," she continued, "we will use the metric of the number of written referrals and suspension letters for in-school and out-of-school suspensions. The superintendent thinks all schools can meet this objective as we strive to improve discipline."

The teachers sat quietly, some glanced at each other, while others sat expressionless as the air in the room thickened. The principal looked around the room. The pause lingered heavy until Skip, the physical education teacher, raised his lanky arm. "Skip, do you have a comment or question?" the principal asked.

"Yeah, I guess I do," Skip said with a tone of reluctance in his voice. "The superintendent has been pushing strategic planning since he's been here. His salary bonus is tied to us meeting these strategic goals, and we are either viewed as a good or bad school depending on if we meet them. But I've been thinking. We can make this a win-win for all of us," he said warming up to the topic as he rose and faced the staff.

"We can give them the numbers they need. All each one of us has to do is look away three times this year when we see a kid acting out. There are 85 of us, and if we ignore three behavior issues each, we will reduce referrals and suspensions by about 15 percent. The superintendent reaches his target. We reach our goal. We're considered a good school. Everyone is happy.

"The sad thing is discipline will go to hell around here, and the kids lose," he acknowledged. "Don't they understand that what you can measure isn't always important or a true indication of a complex thing like school climate and discipline?"

Common Phenomenon

Fiction? Sadly no. It is a true scenario from a high-performing metropolitan school district in the Northeast. Strategic planning has taken school districts such at this one by storm in the past decade. Consultants have made bundles helping districts and state departments of education put their strategic goals into data-driven terms, defining benchmarks, establishing metrics and determining measurable performance standards.

But even the best-laid plans, as the old saw says, can be circumvented by people or unanticipated events. The world and life intervene, shattering the cause-and-effect basis for those plans. Hence the problem, because leadership involves more than analyzing data and making decisions. You cannot change schools by painting by the numbers.

I am not making the case against planning—strategic or otherwise. It is important. The question is what kind of planning is appropriate and for what purpose?

Conventional wisdom and political correctness works against anyone raising questions about strategic planning. It is just assumed to be necessary, essential and logical. Who wants to be a heretic? But any planning process, including strategic planning, has pitfalls, and behind each planning approach is a mindset, a way of thinking and perceiving how the world works.

Strategic planning has a place when problems require rational, linear, quantifiable and data-driven approaches. But two problems plague strategic planning. First, the world is not predictable and does not succumb to cause-and-effect behavior or straight-line projections.

Important things cannot always be measured and gauged with hard data. The world is a chaotic, serendipitous, playful and mysterious place. Otherwise, all of our cognitive plans would have worked with clockwork precision, immune to the butterflies whose small wing flutters create monumental windstorms.

The second problem is that schools are people-driven, complete with idiosyncrasies, intuition, hunches, beliefs, emotions, passion, will, insight, spirit, biases, imagination, creativity and a potpourri of other characteristics that are both infuriating and endearing. People are imaginative and unpredictable in both positive and negative ways, defying cause-and-effect planning and control.

Herein lies the argument for multiple or optional ways to plan. Forecasting, contingency planning and strategic planning all have merit, but they are premised on different assumptions and mindscapes. Projecting and forecasting enrollments, expenditures, revenues, timelines and other things are useful in managing organizations. Looking through the rearview mirror of history to see where we are going and might end up may have some virtue, providing people's behavior remains the same and events do not change dramatically. But how can planning take into account the nonlinear, nonrational and immeasurable aspects of life, society and human behavior? What are the tools to address a world that is chaotic, complex and unpredictable?

Scenario planning offers school district leaders and policymakers another approach to planning in a world where linear logic does not prevail. Scenarios are not step-by-step strategies to get from point A to point B nor are they linear, data-laden accountability procedures.

Scenario planning offers the prospect of strategic thinking as a tool to deal with a world that is unpredictable and where intangible and unseen fields affect people and society. Scenario planning can be coupled with other planning approaches to create a more comprehensive mosaic for what contemporary schools face.

Conceivable Futures

So what exactly are scenarios? They are not predictions, projections or forecasts. Very simply, scenarios are credible stories about plausible futures that can be used as tools for organizational learning and strategic thinking.

Scenarios, which are realistic images of what lies ahead, portray conceivable futures against which strategies and decisions can be played out. These scenario stories are not just willy-nilly speculation or science fiction. They are based on carefully constructed plots that address the driving forces and predetermined elements that, when combined with critical uncertainties, help define and structure plausible futures—but not necessarily cloned futures of the present.

Driving forces are those social, economic, political or technological undercurrents that affect and steer the trends, movements and inclinations affecting our lives. Driving forces, some of which are subtle and unseen, affect the major domains of our lives. For example, two evident driving forces today are the technological advances that engulf people's lives and the search by individuals for purpose and meaning in their own lives. These two forces, while not directly at odds, present some interesting issues.

Technologically empowered independence is available in the form of instant information, consumer options and direct participation and involvement. At the same time, people are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives amid the forest of information and material abundance.

These two forces (and there are others) affect our economy, society, relationships, politics, priorities and schools in tangible and intangible ways. They can create futures and mold our attitudes and thinking and shape how we live, work and relate. Leaders will have to be aware of how they might affect education and public schools and be prepared to respond to them.

The second factor, predetermined elements, is easier to define because we can see evidence of them. They are inevitable, cannot be altered and will influence the future. Demographics are one such predetermined element. Politicians, marketers, educators and everyone else in society are attuned to age cohorts so they can sell goods, craft political support, determine how and where to spend public dollars (schools versus senior centers) and assess the viability of social programs.

The third component of scenarios is the critical uncertainties, those unpredictable issues that ride the waves of emotion, opinion, intuition or serendipity. These are the things that drive planners crazy because they are not always rational or logical, and they are unexpected or cannot be calculated.

Critical uncertainties affect us, at times, like lightning bolts out of the dark. They are not predictable like cause-and-effect responses, and their impact may far outweigh their initial force, such as the butterfly effect. For example, consumer confidence cannot be predicted because it is a critical uncertainty spawned by perception, belief and emotion. Another example is the sudden and unanticipated resignation of an influential school board member over a matter of principle.

Critical uncertainties add the spice to the scenarios and make them intriguingly different. If you do not believe they exist, look at politics, economics, marketing, popular culture or any other facet of human behavior. They are what cause people to say "truth is stranger than fiction." While critical uncertainties are unpredictable, they can be influenced—just as public opinion, consumer confidence or political credibility can, although without guaranteed assurance.

These components—driving forces, predetermined elements and critical uncertainties—are weaved into plausible stories of what future(s) can unfold. Remember, these scenario stories are not predictions. They are narratives that are plausible and encompass both linear and divergent thinking, logic and intuition, as well as rational and nonrational twists.

Collective Thought

Scenarios are powerful planning tools because the future is not predictable. Unpredictability overpowers linear strategies, like strategic planning, contingency strategies or forecasting. Unlike these approaches, scenarios present alternative images and possibilities. Because they are plausible and sometimes unnerving, they have the power to break stereotypes and generate out-of-the-box thinking.

Thinking is a key because thought is powerful. It creates images, establishes what is possible and defines our realities and prospects. Learning organizations think collectively and scenarios can be a critical force in helping people understand how the currents and dynamics of each scenario would influence the future of public schools. As people think together, they must define their assumptions, evaluate them and establish a collective understanding and common language. Scenarios do just that.

Scenarios provide a common vocabulary and the opportunity to engage in dialogue—the process of collective thought—about plausible emerging futures. Success in the future goes to the leaders who can discern what is emerging, not simply reacting to what is already manifested and obvious. Leaders must discern what is beginning to unfold down the road because lightning-fast communication and instant and easy access to information is available to competitors and others. Scenarios, because they use linear, divergent and intuitive thought processes, can provide insight into what may emerge when the driving forces, predetermined elements and critical uncertainties converge.

Well-written narratives based on driving forces and predetermined elements can spur intuitive, as well as, logical ways of knowing—the rational and the nonrational sides of knowing and learning. Deep knowledge and sensitivity to conditions allow intuition to surface. These are our hidden voices that inexplicably provide insight in a way that is different from linear logic.

Scenarios have room for those elements in life that are not quantifiable or tangible. They have room for the invisible fields and forces at work in our lives and the universe that can have grand effects. These are the influences that part-to-whole, linear planning approaches miss. Scenarios not only can incorporate what is not tangible and measurable, they also can apply them to the issues raised in each scenario.

While creating the possibility of collective thought, dialogue and understanding, scenarios also can lead to what Royal Dutch Shell Oil executive Arie deGeus called "future memory." By thinking strategically about possible emerging futures, leaders can consider and test their assumptions and play out possible decisions, thereby gaining some future memory if those plausible scenarios come to pass.

In other words, scenarios can create practice for leaders and managers and then, if confronted by the situation, they will have some memory as to what options and alternatives might be successful in meeting the challenges. This can reduce reaction time and assist in the future with decision-making, consensus and understanding.

In effect, scenarios provide an early warning signal of what might be unfolding, determine the viability of the core competencies of the professionals and leaders in the system to face new challenges, generate better strategic options and future memory, and evaluate the risk-return of various strategic options.

David Bohm, the British physicist, philosopher and protégé of Einstein, indicated that thought is a system that can help reveal the "implicate order" of the universe. The implicate order, according to Bohm, is a level below the explicit world we can see and touch. It includes matter and consciousness, and the explicit world unfolds from it.

Looking at the universe through strictly linear, cause-and-effect lenses and from Newtonian part-to-whole thinking that relies on calculable hard data may not be sufficient in a complex world. That perspective may miss the unfolding potential and energy around us. Determining what is emerging keeps schools and other organizations viable in an ever-changing, unfolding context.

Scenarios add a healthy dimension to planning that includes the intangibles of life that consistently surprise us and wreak havoc on our linear, strategic plans. Scenario planning is a complementary tool for leadership and strategic decision-making in a chaotic and uncertain future.

Timewarp Revisited

It is June at Isaac Newton Middle School, and the faculty is meeting to review the past year. "Congratulations," the principal says. "I am pleased to announce that we met all of our goals in the strategic plan." She smiles and looks around the room. "Concerning discipline, our referrals and suspensions were reduced by 16.9 percent over last year. The superintendent is very pleased."

Skip sat quietly, reflecting over the school year. The goals were met, yet there was no sense of satisfaction. There was a gnawing in his chest that betrayed the success stated in the data.

"I hate to ruin the party," Skip blurted out, surprising even himself. "Sure, the numbers look good. But we lost something. Schools aren't businesses, kids aren't customers, and the bottom line is not a batch of statistics. We've been so focused on reaching our so-called measurable goals and making ourselves look good that we're losing what made this school special. Some of you don't like to hear this, but we're great at the political game of schooling, but we're losing the human connection between teacher and student."

Skip continued with increasing passion. "Schools are sanctuaries for children, where they can learn, make mistakes and find out about themselves and the world. When we focus so hard on numbers—test scores, attendance, data—we lose sight of the kids. We're in danger of making major issues minor and minor issues major.

"What data shows our commitment or if our classes are exciting, creative places? We're focusing on statistics, forgetting that there's an art, a human element, in what we do too. Remember the great teachers in your lives? Their passion and compassion weren't rooted in numbers. Well, enough of my venting. This pseudo-science stuff frustrates me."

Skip sat down, then quickly bolted up and said, "One more thing. This may be a cheap shot, but we do the work and the superintendent gets the big-buck bonus. What did he do to get the numbers? We hardly saw him here all year!"

George Goens, a former superintendent in Wisconsin, is a partner in Goens/Esparo, a leadership consulting firm. He can be reached at 649 Spencer Hollow Road, Springfield, Vt. 05156. E-mail: ggoens@vermontel.net