Well-known as a strategic planning tool, the scenarios methodology can drive potent academic research that shatters assumptions and reveal radical new perspectives on major issues and problems.
The word ‘scenarios’ has many different meanings in a variety of fields and disciplines. In strategic planning, scenarios refer to a small set of carefully structured and tailored narratives about the future context a company or an industry might inhabit. These narratives are developed through interviews and workshops with a broad range of stakeholders related to the focal company or industry.
A team of academic researchers from the University of Oxford, led by a preeminent thought leader in the field of scenario planning, proposes a new role for scenarios: as academic research methodology. Academic research is often built on expansive data sets and statistical modelling. These traditional methods can hamper the questioning of core assumptions or the development of completely off-the-grid solutions. This has led to recent calls for more ‘interesting’ research — that is, research that offers new perspectives that not only shatters assumptions but also, and just as importantly, leads to real-world solutions for practitioners. For Rafael Ramirez of the University of Oxford’s Saïd School of Business, Malobi Mukherjee of Oxford’s Institute of Retail Management, Simona Vezzoli of Oxford’s International Migration Institute, scenarios answer the call for developing interesting research.
In a recent Futures journal article, Ramirez, Mukherjee and Vezzoli, joined by Arnoldo Matus Kramer of 100 Resilient Cities, use three separate research projects to illustrate the full potential of scenarios. In general, the methodology for each followed the same steps: in-depth interviews with stakeholders leads to a first iteration of scenarios that is revised and deepened in subsequent iterations after further workshops and analyses.
The first research project, for example, concerned pressures on the Indian retail industry. A ‘win-lose’ mindset permeated discussions about the future of the Indian retail industry: specifically, that for Indian retailers to remain competitive, the industry had to modernize, which meant the end of traditional retailing. The scenario methodology, however, surfaced and dissected two driving forces — regulatory political pressures and complex consumer behaviour — that challenged the old assumptions. The complexity of consumer behaviour revealed that Indian consumers were prepared to patronize both modern and traditional retailer. The scenarios also highlighted the central role that the regulatory framework, rather than competitive pressures, played in the future of Indian retailing — a regulatory framework prepared to support the coexistence of modern and traditional retailing. In sum, the win-lose assumption was replaced by a coexistence mindset, which radically changed the possibilities for the future.
The same cart-upsetting dynamic occurred with a research project on the impact of climate change on a Mexican tourist destination, the Tulum region of the Peninsula of Yucatán. As with the Indian retailing research, the use of the scenario methodology led to the shattering of a fundamental assumption — in this case, that the future economic wealth of the area depended on mass tourism. Entrenched in this neoliberalist mindset, past researchers and local policy makers had been unable to fathom a non-liberalist mindset, one that would replace the aggressive, short-term obsession with mass tourism with a more long-term, environmentally friendly vision for the area.
A third research project on migration in Europe also resulted in new, unexpected perspectives on the familiar issue. Through the scenarios methodology the traditional assumption that migration was an inexorably growing crisis was challenged.
Like a ship buffeted by the ocean and the weather, navigating successfully in the world of business requires making the right decisions in the face of constantly evolving circumstances. Corporate leaders rely on information about the multiple present and future contexts in which their businesses operate: successful anticipation and adaptation is the key to long-term survival. Although already used in strategic planning, the research by Ramirez and his team of researchers reveal the power of scenarios to explode the assumptions related to highly complex, global and political issues and reveal surprising, unimagined alternative futures — which in turn offer radical new paths to future success.
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