In an article entitled, "Citi Weighs Its Options, Including Firm's Sale", on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal, this line stood out [emphasis added]:
It neatly captures the essence of why it is vital for scenario thinking to be cultivated as a natural part of an organization's analytical culture, and to become an accepted aspect of ongoing corporate dialogue, and why the term 'scenario' is often maligned and misused.
Two simple ideas: 1) It's hard to think as clearly or creatively when an 18-wheeler is bearing down on you as when it's not, and 2) calling something unthinkable is... unthoughtful. I'll deal with the first point here and second point more extensively in another post.
Studies of cops under stress bear out the fact that fear and adrenaline reduce or even shut down one's ability to access key higher brain functions, including one's peripheral vision and other sensory input. They don't do much for collaboration or listening skills either. A group's thinking may appear to get more expansive under such circumstances; that's typically an illusion.
Ideas long held close to the vest (because others would have thought them crazy) are suddenly poured out on the table in a torrent of collective logorrhea. By definition they are not pro-active, nor have they had time to ripen. It's an environment conducive to the green and rotten ideas becoming indiscriminately co-mingled with the good and timely ones.
Some might be tempted to reply with Boswell's reporting of Samuel Johnson's famous quip, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." (September 19, 1777, p. 351, Volume III of 'The Life of Samuel Johnson"; often misquoted as 'being hanged in the morning'.) It's a quote I love and have used often.
Yet the frame for that quote involves a man already devoid of attractive options (other than prayer, perhaps). He's done. The only mystery is what kind of scene he will make as he leaves the picture and what lessons others will draw from it. The value of having thought steadily, wisely and creatively about a broad array of alternatives years in advance of one's crime, trial, conviction and sentencing doesn't even enter the picture.
Laser-like tactical concentration under extreme stress is very different from the calm, disciplined thoughtfulness and habituated creative behaviors (either corporate or individual) that can help steer clear of circumstances that might lead to one staring death in the face. They make so-called 'unthinkable' futures far less surprising and lead to better responses.
Better choice: create an environment in which 'unthinkable' futures and strategic options for addressing them are systematically thought-out by groups of key managers and executives and carefully positioned in relation to one another (and to the present state) within a detailed, event-based hypothetical cartography. Such scenario maps make it far easier to avoid being surprised by the kinds of dire circumstances Citi and others face today -- or that Johnson spoke about 231 years ago.
How does one reduce the chances of an 18-wheeler bearing down with little room to maneuver? Use a map to figure out where the sidewalks are. Don't walk on exit ramps after dark with your back to traffic. Don't make a desperate, instinctive lunge for the bushes and call the choice of thorns or poison ivy 'scenarios'.