Tomorrow Never Knows – But Fiction Does: The Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Planning Tool
By Woody Wade, Scenario planning expert and Demian Hodari, Professor of Strategic Management at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, HES-SO // University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland
One novel way that can be particularly useful in meeting this challenge, however, comes not from the power of Big Data or trend analysis, but from the uniqueness of fiction. Fiction? Yes, fiction. When we pose this idea to executives, they often blanch at the idea that "fairy tales" (or even "lies") can help them get a better grasp of what may indeed be the reality of the future. But our executive education courses and field research have demonstrated that it can. Let us explain.
Rarely are executives at ease with starting a strategic discussion at a very abstract level and then applying its output to specific situations. Instead, they prefer the inverse: Start with specific scenarios and then work towards the abstraction in order to understand that the data and analysis are relevant and important. Fine, but why fiction? That is, why use fiction to present the specific scenarios?
Well, that's what the future is: fiction, is it not? Certainly from the perspective of today, the future is unknown and unknowable, so any narrative we might set out to write about it is bound to be made up – that is, fictitious.
Of course we can predict some things about the future with 100% confidence. The sun will rise tomorrow in the east. That's not fiction; it's a certainty. But what else will happen tomorrow? What will happen in our business arena, in our marketplace, in our political environment, among our customers, staff and competitors? Anything we try to say about these things today will be pure fiction, because we simply don't know what will happen in reality.
But just because we must, out of necessity, resort to a fictional way of thinking when we contemplate the future, it doesn't mean we should dismiss these scenarios as useless, pie-in-the-sky fabrications. As leaders, we need our companies' fellow decision makers to think strategically about the future, and that means helping them see the possibilities – positive and less positive – that they may realistically encounter. We need them to see these scenarios not as remote likelihoods, but rather plausible futures – so they can prepare a strategic response instead of being taken by surprise.
Fiction is a great way to achieve this. First of all, it grabs people's attention. Fiction has enraptured people and captured their imaginations for millennia. Second, fiction has the power to break down people's resistance to envisaging the unforeseeable future, to imagining a future very different, not only from the present but also from their already-established visions of the future. Third, fiction can focus people's minds, create protagonists with whom they can identify, and provide a narrative context that they can turn back to when analyzing data and information and crafting actual strategies.
Think of some of the works of fiction that center on powerful and unforgettable (if not alarming) visions of the near future: Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Atlas Shrugged, H.G. Well's The Shape of Things to Come, or Michael Crichton's Next, to name but a few. Or the grand-daddy of them all, Utopia by Thomas More. Of course, none of these books was written with corporate strategic planning in mind, but they each offer a highly original vision of how the future could plausibly develop – and therefore they could have theoretically provided their era's decision makers with the contours of a possible future landscape that might have served them well when it came time to think about the challenges and opportunities that their company, their market, their industry, or their nation might face a few years hence.
We're not suggesting that you replace your planning process by setting up an internal committee to pen a dystopian novel. But when you are in planning mode, we believe that fiction can be a very useful mindset. All in all, a good fictional storyline may seem like a whirlwind of characters and events, but for exactly that reason it can captivate and motivate an audience to grasp real issues and see different possibilities, all within a framework that everyone understands could plausibly evolve from the world as it actually exists today.
When we engage executives in strategic planning discussions and scenario planning exercises, what we want is to get them to think beyond mere incremental developments and relatively minute changes from the current state – although this is clearly what people are most comfortable with. Instead, we want to help them see entirely new realities, to see how today's circumstances can evolve into extraordinary new scenarios, be they promising, challenging, or downright scary. What fiction can do, here, is provide clear, engaging and truly interesting representations of a world that is otherwise difficult to imagine if you remain in conventional strategic planning mode. Life is complicated and complex. Fiction may help us better see how the world could evolve well beyond a simple extrapolation of the way it already is now. Change happens in many arenas, and on many levels, and fictional stories can often provide a more profound, yet still believable, picture of the future than can a detailed but ultimately linear analysis of where things are all supposedly heading.