The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz

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I liked the talk by Peter Schwartz that I went to, so when I saw his most well-known book at the used book store for $3, I picked it up. A pretty quick read detailing the idea of scenario planning, a management strategy involving coming up with several detailed future possibilities for the world and playing them out to see how they would affect your corporate strategy. The point is not to predict the future, but to prepare for it; by having thought through how different factors in the world may affect you, you will be better prepared to deal with any of the myriad things that actually do happen. He emphasizes that a scenario fails if the people it is presented to don’t consider it. It has to be realistic and detailed enough to be considered as a possibility, but it also has to challenge the audience enough to change how they think. As he says, “The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future.”

After making the case for scenarios, Schwartz then goes into the details of how to prepare scenarios, how to identify critical decision points, how to gather information to construct the scenario story, balancing between pre-determined elements such as demographics versus unexpected possibilities, and composing a plot (he mentions several standard plots, including Winners and Losers, Challenge and Response, Evolution, et cetera).

Finally, he takes these ideas and uses them to construct three possible scenarios for 2005 (the book was written in 1991). And this is fairly interesting, since we’re living in that future now. So it was fun to check how various trends that he identified either failed to come to fruition or achieved success that he wouldn’t have believed. Not surprisingly, the world that exists has elements from all three of his scenarios (New Empires (where Europe matches up against a Pacific Bloc of North America and Japan and Southeast Asia), Market World (where laissez faire capitalism dominates – this is actually pretty close to what happened), Change Without Progress (our world has elements of this as well, particularly politically)). Interesting stuff.

I like the idea that scenario planning is centered around stories. Stories are one of the most powerful and compact ways to affect people’s behaviors. This is the power of myth, as Joseph Campbell would say. Stories tell us what to do, and serve as guides to our daily lives. Scenarios are a way of consciously constructing those stories in a way that is immediately relevant to corporate management. I’m not sure I’d recommend reading this specific book, because it doesn’t really have a lot of information; ipso facto, it’s a quick read, though.

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