Chapter 23: Alternatron 2010 at UNICOM: Introducing Scenarios to the Corporation

by Anika Ellison Savage (formerly Audrey Schriefer)

Scenario planning offers an organization an opportunity to do some fresh thinking about its future. But the operations managers of many businesses who have recently struggled through reegineering, right-sizing, benchmarking or other initiatives are likely to be cynical–and reluctant to embrace another new methodology. So what’s the most effective way to introduce the thought provoking concepts, methodology, and goals of scenario planning to both line and senior managers of an organization and obtain their enthusiastic support?

It’s never easy to convince an organization to adopt new ways of thinking, to change behavior, or to imagine operating in future conditions that differ greatly from the present. When introducing scenario planning to an organization for the first time, managers confront a number of immediate challenges: · How to get senior management’s attention? · How to quickly explain the content, rationales and uses of scenarios to a cadre of managers, many of whom are likely to possess a bias against “futuristic” thinking? · How to motivate managers to come together and talk openly about the benefits and limitations of scenarios, and in particular, how they might improve decision making?

Here’s how one group of managers in one of the world’s largest corporations–we’ll call it UNICOM–tackled these challenges through the design, development and execution of a one-day “grass roots” scenario planning eventAlternatron 2010.. One of the program’s major purposes was to establish a network of champions–people who believed that scenario planning could improve strategic decision making and who would educate and influence the senior ranks of UNICOM.

Background The story starts a year ago, when a small team of scientists within UNICOM’s research division was preparing a report on how the company had selected its R&D investments in recent years. A frequent complaint voiced by group members was that the corporation’s historic mindset prevented top management from anticipating how their industry would evolve. They concluded that the organization was mired in a mental rut–stuck in its particular ways of thinking about the future, making decisions, and asking and answering questions. This small cadre of scientists concluded that the organization needed fresh perspectives to evaluate key research decisions. Indeed, they hoped that by creating new and different perspectives on the future, the organization would discover high-potential research opportunities that were now being ignored or even suppressed. New views of UNICOM’s future markets, they hoped, would generate fresh insight into emerging customer needs, and thus lead to new product breakthroughs.

The original team members–all scientists–soon decided to enlist a number of UNICOM managers with business backgrounds and strategic management experience. They asked these new team members help them evaluate strategic planning tools and techniques designed for decision making in UNICOM’s high technology environment.

After studying the strategy analysis and business planning methodology used throughout UNICOM, the team concluded that these processes had become stagnant and stale. The current system was no longer able to capture and respond to the firm’s fast changing product markets and technologies. As in so many large corporations today, UNICOM’s planning system required the business units to state how they would achieve predetermined corporate goals and related “metrics.” The culture did not reward the business unit manager who demonstrated that some goals dictated by corporate planning were unrealistic. As a result, UNICOM’s business unit plans universally proclaimed their intention to increase revenue and profits, often with little or no convincing evidence to show how these financial results were to be accomplished.

Several team members suggested that scenario planning–a methodology especially suited for studying markets in flux–would be an appropriate alternative to UNICOM’s current formal planning system.

Because of the current and anticipated turbulence in its competitive and technological environment, UNICOM could no longer assume that current trends or past successes were a true indicator of future performance–there were simply too many unknowns. The ad hoc team at the research division could see many potential threats and opportunities that UNICOM’s senior managers and their staffs seemingly refused to recognize. The scientists on the team were familiar with many examples of research projects that should have become important new products, but never even made it to the marketplace. And the researchers could also point to a number of worthwhile new products that made it to market but were promoted ineffectively. UNICOM seemed locked in traditional ways of defining markets, taking products to the market, and executing marketinga serious disability at time when markets were changing in unexpected ways. Many of the discoveries made at the research center were later successfully exploited by competitors, who derived considerable strategic advantage from being the first to market the new technology.

Somewhat to surprise of the research team, they soon discovered that several senior managers were familiar with scenario planning and a few had used it to address specific issues in the past. One manager had used scenario planning when he was working for a competitor and was extremely enthusiastic about its use. He agreed to sponsor the team and have them work on a scenario project for his unit of UNICOM. While this project was being readied, a major corporate-wide reorganization was announced. As part of ensuing restructuring of UNICOM, its entire corporate planning system was slated to be discarded. The team decided that the time was ripe to show senior management how scenarios could provide some new approaches to strategy. They made plans to share what they had learned about scenarios in a one-day demonstration session.

Preparation for the One-Day Event

Acceptance of truly bold ideas must be won, usually by extensive preparation. The team recognized that they needed to gain visibility and credibility within the organization for the scenario planning methodology. The question was, “How?” They decided on a two-step initiative–to identify innovative thinkers and start networking with each other

As a first step, members of the team identified a number of UNICOM’s strategic thinkers–individuals who had demonstrated their willingness and ability to consider unconventional methods or to challenge long-established business orthodoxies within the corporation. They sought out people in a variety of functions and all levels of the corporate hierarchy. They wanted individuals who were respected by their peers and who were in a position to influence the thinking of major portions of the organization.

As a second step, the team decided to bring these people together to introduce them to scenario planning methodology and to facilitate a strategic dialogue.

The team carefully developed specific goals for a day-long event. Each goal was intended to help “market” scenario planning as a means of making better strategic decisions. The specific goals included:

1. To build a network of individuals throughout the corporation who would understand both the value of scenarios and the scenario planning methodology
2. To position the team as the hub of the network
3. To establish the team as a resource for information on scenario planning
4. To identify specific areas of expertise within the network
5. To identify scenario planning projects for the team.

Selecting these projects would be one of the critical activities of the day.

Developing the Agenda

To achieve these meeting goals, the agenda identified the topics and issues to be covered, specific tasks to be accomplished in each time period, and the speakers or presenters who would lead each session.

The team wanted those participating in the event to learn about scenarios as well as to actively engage in the work of developing them, so the workshop consisted of both:

a) Presentations on scenario methodology. These presentations would draw upon the experiences and insights of the participants gained from previous scenario work.

b) Participatory workshop sessions. These sessions encouraged attendees to experience “how it would be to really operate a business unit in a future quite unlike the present.”

Participants were given plenty of time to network–chances to talk openly and informally during long breaks and all through the hour allotted for lunch. Session planners hoped that participants would use the time to exchange ideas about how scenario planning could be infused into the whole organization.

Choosing the Date

There’s a simple rule that determines the date of any highly visible, one-day corporate event involving outside speakers, top management, and senior staff. It happens when the key speakers are available. The trick is to get all the desired internal and external speakers to commit to a particular date.

Selecting the Location

Site selection is of paramount importance. Hold one of these meetings in corporate headquarters or on the corporate “campus” and you will be shocked how many key executives, managers and staff soon become “missing in action.” For many, the temptation to slip back to their office to check their messages and become involved in day-to-day operations is overwhelming.

To minimize such distractions, the team decided that the meeting should be held some distance from their regular workplace but within an easy commute for most participants. Speakers from out-of-town would be met at the airport and lodged near the conference facility.

Choosing the Facilities

A lot depends on how well-designed and how well-run the hotel meeting area or convention center you chose is. Don’t pick a remote site that is so difficult to reach that participants arrive tired or straggle in late. Test the meeting rooms to make certain that all participants will be able to hear and see speakers. Try out the support services, including access to phone, fax and on-line outlets. Don’t choose a facility if you suspect that the staff may be unable to cope with unexpected emergencies–such as a balky sound system or temperamental room air conditioning.

The UNICOM scenario team visited a number of potential sites. The facility ultimately selected was close to the corporation’s main offices, had well-designed meeting rooms and was run by an efficient, adaptable staff.

The site posed one problem. Several team members insisted, and were able to convince the others, that there should be daylight in the primary meeting room in order to create a sense of openness and creativity. The only available meeting room that met this condition was half of a larger room separated by a folding partition. It was long and narrow. To create a sense of informality and to locate the speakers close to all of the participants, the team put the podium in the middle of the long wall with chairs arranged around it in a semi-circle. For the breakout sessions, the folding partition was opened. The small groups were arranged in a circle in each of the four corners of the room. This allowed the groups discussing separate topics to keep their distance from each other, lowering the noise level and assuring that their discussions would not spill over from one group to the next.

To encourage networking, the continental breakfast and refreshments for breaks, were set up immediately outside the meeting room. Team members made sure there were a number of working outlets to connect personal laptops for electronic mail. Lunch was served on-site, a short distance from the meeting room.

Choosing the Participants

Another key element of success for such events is identifying and attracting the right participants. The choice of participants determines not only whether the meeting achieves its immediate goals, but also whether it can have a lasting effect on the organization.

The team first used its own personal contacts to identify influential prospective participants. Corporate databases were scanned for line and staff personnel– in all units, at all levels–who managed strategy development and execution. The list of potential invitees included strategic planners, human resource professionals, business unit managers, marketing personnel, and key researchers. Each person was first contacted by e-mail to gauge their interest and availability. Follow-up phone calls were made to get recommendations for other talented people who should be invited. The solicitation process was similar to that used by employment “headhunters.”

The final or “draft” list consisted of 60 people. It was reviewed for balance prior to sending out the formal invitations. One important criteria : Were all functions and business units fairly represented? While the team tried to be inclusive, it also wanted to hint that invitees belonged to a select group. Apparently the right impression was created. Almost all the 60 people invited were able to attend.

Communicating with the Participants

The team believed that the long-term the success of the program hinged upon it being perceived and experienced by participants as part of a larger, ongoing activity. To this end they named the long-term project, AlternaCOR. The one-day kickoff event was called Alternatron 2010.

Furthermore, the team needed to establish its credentials and expertise before actual event. First, they created an Alternatron newsletter–promoted as the first of a series–describing the team’s experiences with the scenario methodology and their key learnings. It was mailed it out with the formal invitation to the event. Second, they developed a scenario planning Internet website to promote communications with and among the participants. The Alternatron website provided useful logistic information and background information about scenario planning as participants began preparing for the one-day retreat. In the months after the event, it enabled participants to continue to learn about scenario planning, to network, to share success stories, to keep abreast of developments, and share innovative ideas. The website and the newsletter would also be used to document and communicate the work of the small groups in the workshops held on the afternoon of Alternatron 2010.

Designing the Workshop

The team paid extensive attention to each segment of the event–designing both their process and content, planning their sequence, and setting learning objectives for each one. Facilitators for each Alternatron workshop were selected based on their specific interests and expertise.

The team devoted a number of days to developing the industry scenarios that would be presented in the afternoon workshops. The scenarios were presented as a work-in-progress and participants were encouraged to contribute to their further development.

Written guidelines were prepared for the facilitators. These covered suggestions for how to ask and respond to questions, a request that facilitators adhere to schedules, and advice on how to deal with specific issues that might surface during the day, for example, questions about possible follow-up activities.

Consultants worked with the team on both process and content. They were used as a sounding board for the design and structure of each Alternatron 2010 workshop and were especially helpful in developing evocative and effective ways to present the industry scenarios.

The team was especially attentive to managing the participants’ expectations about what could be accomplished in one day. For example, session leaders pointed out that full and complete scenarios could not be completed in one afternoon, but that Alternatron 2010 could make considerable progress and its work would lay the foundations for the AlternaCOR project.

Preparing the Information Packet

The information package given to each participant contained industry information, a description of scenario planning methodology, a reading list, and brief biographies of all 60 attendees.

As part of the advance work, all participants–team members, invitees, and presenters– were asked to submit a biographical paragraph, along with their phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Since one of the twin goals of the event was to link the participants into a network, this information was necessary so that attendees could quickly get to know each other and continue to be able to reach each other during subsequent months.

“Launching the Brand”

The team wanted to create a distinct “look and feel” to this one-day event. Their objective was to make it so exciting and memorable that participants would be motivated to become informed and committed champions of the use of scenarios when they returned to their business units and departments.

To this end, the team planned the day as if they were “launching a brand.” For example, the graphic design of the handouts, name tags, presentation materials, and even the forms used to gather feedback were all coordinated with the Alternatron 2010 name, logo, and colors to create a uniform and professional appearance.

Alternatron 2010: Scenario Planning Day at UNICOM

The schedule was:

7:30 – 8:30 Continental Breakfast/Registration. Upon arrival, participants received their name tags and booklets of information, each marked with the distinctive Alternatron logo. The continental breakfast provided the first opportunity for the participants to network. When it was time to convene, lively music gave the participants the signal that it was time to go to work.

8:30 – 9:00 Introduction to Scope and Purpose of the Day. The team leader opened the meeting by introducing the mission of the team, stating the goals for the day and reviewing the agenda for Alternatron 2010. By design, a bit of extra time was allotted at this point so that participants could get comfortable and not feel rushed.

9:00 – 9:45 Methods of Approaching Strategy. A UNICOM senior manager described several strategies companies employ to cope with the future. He demonstrated how each strategy is highly dependent upon the industry structure and the company’s position in the industry. The presentation concluded with a brief description of how scenarios could contribute to strategy development and execution.

9:45 – 10:30 An International Emerging Market in this Industry. A group of leading consultants from another country who specialize in the UNICOM’s industry, delivered a lively presentation on the topic: How a nation’s culture shapes the assumptions of its inhabitants about the future of an industry. The consultants presented a radically different perspective on the dynamics of the industry, the driving forces shaping it in their country, and the various futures that could ensue.

10:30 – 11:00 Break. A half-hour break permitted participants sufficient time to attend to essential phone calls and electronic mail. Some participants used the time to network over coffee and refreshments.

11:00 – 12:00 Opportunities for UNICOM – Keynote Presentation A world renowned scenarios consultant drew a number of parallels between UNICOM’s industry and many others in which he had led consulting engagements. He illustrated and diagnosed the uncertainty inherent in the industry: massive technological change, unstable geopolitical and economic environments, declining societal wealth, and multiple forms of social conflict. He used some simple scenarios to demonstrate how this uncertainty could generate both opportunity and crisis for the different competitors in and around the industry.

The team selected this overview session instead of a “how-to” on scenario planning for a number of reasons. For one, by presenting an articulate, well-known futurist who could share his experiences as scenario planning consultant for many similar corporations the team offered a “marquee event,” one that would attract senior participants. Second, they wanted to demonstrate how scenarios could have a direct impact upon major strategy and investment decisions currently being considered by UNICOM. They wanted to prove a critical point: Scenarios aren’t just imaginary futures; they are tools for studying the implications a variety of possible futures will have on today’s important decisions.

12:00 – 1:00 Lunch. A formal lunch was served in a room adjacent to the meeting room. To promote networking, the Alternatron 2010 participants were encouraged to sit with individuals they did not know. Team members, senior management, and speakers did not sit together on a dais, but instead joined the participants at their tables.

1:00 – 1:30 Introducing the Workshops. Every seasoned corporate managers has experienced “post-lunch lethargy” during day-long meetings. To help stimulate the participants to enjoy the afternoon’s work– designing scenarios around the industry’s future– a video on the future of the industry, played on several monitors as the participants returned to the meeting room for the workshops. The video was professionally prepared by an agency that had carefully researched the industry trends.

Workshop space deserves careful forethought. Common problems that must be avoided are: · Groups that are too close to each other. · Insufficient space to move about.. · A noise level that makes conversation difficult.

Each Alternatron 2010 scenario team had its own area of the main meeting room. Participants’ badges were color coded so that each person upon entering the room, knew where to sit. According to the team’s plans, if the four groups were within eye-shot of each other, it would create a sense of both urgency and energy. The ideal working environment was an energetic background hum but not an overpowering noise level.

Graphics and props placed in each area helped the participants define their specific scenario project. A photo montage of poster- sized images designed to elicit “future shock” decorated the wall space of each workshop. Blow ups of newspaper headlines, mock ups of communications devices in use in the year 2010, even a Dow Jones news bulletin helped the participants imagine that they were actually living “in the scenario.” Each group’s supplies included a white board, a flip chart, “post-it” notes, tape, and colored markers. Once the participants settled into their assigned places, everyone in the room were introduced to the basic outlines of all four scenarios . (How did this work? One speaker? Four speakers?) Each participant therefore had a brief understanding of all four scenarios: the range of industry futures or possibilities the team felt was needed as a point of departure for the afternoon’s deliberations. So that the participants would also understand how these preliminary scenarios had been developed, two team members reviewed the step-by-step process the Alternatron 2010 team had used to craft these distinct, albeit skeletal, industry futures.

1:30 – 3:30 Workshop Small group sessions – Rehearsing the Future Each workshop was structured so that each group spent the first hour “living” in its assigned scenario that is very different from the present. The facilitator steered the discussion so that it addressed critical elements of the future –that is, those that would profoundly affect UNICOM’s strategies. For example, how did each future change the home, work, education and leisure/ entertainment? Such discontinuities reveal unexpected opportunities and risks that might confront each division of UNICOM.

Once the small groups fully understood what the daily life of their customers was like in their scenario, they were asked to discuss the question, “How do you operate and sustain a successful company in this world?” Participants first shared ideas about what the industry would be like: · The products that were on the market. · The technologies were embedded in these products · The competitors that were winning and losing. · The alliances entered into by different industry entities–suppliers, customers and competitors. · The needs of different groups of customers. In sum, empathy with a future industry setting comes not from reading about it, but from envisioning what it would look like, feel like, and sound like from the perspective of UNICOM, its vendors, its rivals, and its customers.

The team hoped that immersion in the scenarios would allow each group to experience making decisions in a world that was yet to be, and most importantly, a world that often didn’t fit participants’ expectations of the future shape of the industry. The guiding underlying premise of the workshop can be simply stated: innovative strategic thinking is more likely to occur when managers and others are given the opportunity to dispense with conventional wisdom, to abandon their old mindsets, and to discover the future through authentic dialogue.

The team decided to forego formal “report outs” by each group. Instead, volunteers helped document the discussion and the results were posted on the web and distributed in the newsletter. 3:30 – 4:00 Break. This half-hour break was noticeably livelier than the morning break. Many participants were overheard sharing ideas from their workshop with colleagues who were in other sessions. The participants were encouraged to fill out their evaluation forms. When they turned in their completed forms, they were given a small memento–a small kaleidoscope decorated with the Alternatron 2010 logo–as a thank-you for attending the meeting.

4:00 – 5:00 A Practitioner’s View of Scenario Planning. Managers exposed to analysis methodologies for the first time often ask the same questions: How have managers employed them in other companies? What results have they generated? Have their improvements been sustained or were they one-shot wonders?

To authoritatively address these practical questions, the team asked one of the firm’s senior managers to recount his experience with scenarios at a previous employer–a competitor of the firm. The manager related how he learned about scenarios first from reading a book about their development and use, and then talking with executives who had put the methodology to work. Eventually, he led a team that generated a surprisingly divergent set of business futures. His message: High quality scenario work and its outputs can give decision makers new mental models to work from and influence decision making.

End-of-the-Day Exercise. The UNICOM team wanted to get a quick assessment of the impact of the day. To do so, they designed a simple little exercise. Each participant was given a Post-it note and asked to write the one thing they heard or thought during the day that they would like to whisper into the ear of their senior manager. The responses were collected and posted on the wall so that all participants could see them on the way out. Latter they were collected and listed on the web site and in the newsletter. The teams favorite was use scenario planning.

Follow-up Activities

Alternatron 2010 team members committed themselves to executing a number of follow-up activities as quickly as possible. Each activity was designed to help build and sustain involvement in the ongoing project–AlternaCOR, the full development UNICOM scenarios and their use through out the company.

An electronic thank-you note was sent to every participant the day after the session. The note reminded them to check the website and to look for their newsletters. It also invited them to maker contributions to both the web-site and the newsletter.

Written thank-you notes were sent to the presenters on graphically correct stationary (in keeping with the “look and feel” of the day).

The team met soon after the event to debrief on the day. They described and detailed the entire process for future reference, reviewed the feedback from the evaluation forms and other informal means, and to plan next steps.

The feedback revealed that the presentations were generally rated very highly and the small group sessions scored somewhat lower. The rationales for specific numerical evaluations are always difficult to discern. However, the wide range of scenario planning knowledge and experience among the participants was evident: some feedback forms revealed that more coverage of the basics of scenario planning was desired while others had wanted to go into more content development in the scenario break-out sessions.

The forms asked whether scenarios applied to their jobs and if the team could help. Nearly 80 percent responded yes to the second question. The team divided the respondents among themselves for follow-up phone calls to get more details on what types of help they desired and how best it might be provided.

The output of the break-out groups was edited and reviewed with the participants who had agreed to help. The result was posted on the web-site and in the newsletter so that all participants could review the work of all the scenario groups. They were invited to comment and to deepen the scenarios within their own areas of expertise.

The meeting notes were summarized and published in a special edition of the newsletter and on the web site. A “scenario speakers bureau,” a database of internal and external speakers available for unit meetings was set up. The list of network members was also entered into a database for ease of sorting and access.

New Initiatives by the Team

Although the team felt that many of the Alternatron 2010 goals had been attained, they were well aware most of real work necessary to convince UNICOM to adopt scenario planning still lay ahead. They committed themselves to a set of initiatives, each of which was intended to weave scenarios into UNICOM’s decision making process.

First, they began an effort to integrate and extend the work of the individual Alternatron 2010 workshop groups. These initial attempts at writing industry scenarios needed to be augmented, refined, and tested before they could be used by other groups of UNICOM managers to gain more significant insights. As a major step toward accomplishing this task, the AlternaCOR team scheduled a two day off-site meeting. A number of the workshop participants and a number of UNICOM employees who could add particular expertise and knowledge were invited to participate in the off-site meeting. Prior to the meeting, each AlternaCOR Project team member was assigned one or more topics to research.

The AlternaCOR Project team also felt a need to improve the quality and professionalism of their facilitation techniques. They scheduled a session for all facilitators with a training organization.

It was obvious to all members of the AlternaCOR Project team that they needed to continue to build the network through on-going communications and events. A half day session was scheduled a month in advance. A calendar of events (brainstorming sessions, large plenary sessions, cyberspace events, working teams, training sessions, scenario development sessions) needed to be developed and a person assigned to coordinate the execution of these events.

Lessons Learned

Reflecting back on the experience, the team felt that they had learned many useful lessons that should be carried forward in future events. Some of the key points were:

— Design the event backwards — Have a vision of what you want to achieve both for the participants and for the team. Then, make all the practical and detailed decisions in the context of that vision.

— Preparation, preparation, preparation - Think everything through from as many angles as possible. Rehearse with people from outside the planning team. Consult the experts. Anticipate what could go wrong and, also, what could go right. What if we are overwhelmed by the response?

— Set expectations — Work as closely as possible with the participants before the event. Senior managers may merit a brief face to face meeting to let them know what to expect and what is not included. All participants need a clear set of expectations and a basic level of understanding of the subject. This will reduce the possibility of disappointment for those wanting in depth content and frustration for those who may not have a strong background knowledge of the subject.

— Follow-up

  • Do what you say you’ll do
  • Do it quickly
  • Do it well.