The Art of the Long View: Scenario Planning - Protecting Your Company Against an Uncertain World. By Peter Schwartz. Century; 258pp; £16.99. Review by Francis Kinsman.
Forecasters have never had a particularly good press. Joseph was not overwhelmingly popular with his brothers. Cassandra was endowed by Apollo with the gift of accurate prophecy, but when she jilted him was also saddled with the curse of automatic client turn-off - a not unknown combination among futurists, even toady. The holy Koran avers that anyone who foretells the future is a liar, even if he turns out to be right.
This book could help bring about something of a change in attitudes. Peter Schwartz is well-known in the crystal ball department, and here he demonstrates why he is so widely respected. Following an early stint as a forecaster at California's Stanford Research Institute, Schwartz plunged into the creation of scenarios for Shell, working alongside the legendary Pierre Wack who, using similar means, was virtually the only person to anticipate the 1973-74 oil crisis in time.
At Shell, Schwartz developed the craft of scenario building for which the group became famous. In this book he spills the magic beans with a firm and steady hand, and invites us all to share his secrets. Better still, he draws on his experience not only at Shell, lord of the business jungle, but also at Smith and Hawken, a little green frog living in the floor of the same capitalist ecosystem, which he helped evolve into a successful US mailorder supplier for expensive, high quality garden tools.
The ecological metaphor is appropriate. Scenario building is almost Darwinian in theory and practice. Scenarios define the range of possible futures in which an organisation could find itself, and specify the different evolutionary paths which it may have to take. Change - we have plenty in the offing - will require businesses to get right, or perish and be re-cycled as tomorrow's topsoil. Here's how to avoid that according to Schwartz.
Business must broaden its outlook by learning to think of the future in three ways - as optimistic, pessimist, and as defender of the status quo. The future may contain elements of all three. Business must come to terms with all the facts that can be established - the inevitabilities of tomorrow's world - which are probably more extensive than might be imagined, then learn how to hunt for and gather information which lies less readily to hand, and decide which are the critical uncertainties.
The scope of business intelligence has to be extended so that it embraces, say, the attitudes of Mexican teenagers and the spread of African music; the latest techno-update on "virtual reality"; the trend in immigration movements in Eastern Europe; the political elements of Islamic fundamentalism; the thirst for basic education in South-East Asia. You think these things have nothing to do with being a stockbroker, a property developer or a metal-basher? Tell me about it in 1988, when the changes have occurred.
No, business needs to zero in on oblique developments that may affect it. Scenarios provide an answer. They allow people to consider possibilities that they might not otherwise have thought of, and so forestall or sidestep what could have been the inevitable. Since Schwartz shows them how, businessmen now have no excuse for failing to master the practicalities of the scenario technique; or to build themselves a working model, and monitor it regularly.
The author offers three distinct possibilities of what the future may hold. All have their benefits, all have their disadvantages; but together they provide a blueprint for strategic planning, and for the construction of a robust strategy.
As a futurist myself, I was relieved to find so much to agree with here. If I have a reservation, it is that the author does not give sufficient weight to the possibility of a global "deep green" movement of almost religious ferver and intensity. This seems to me to have a racing likelihood of being something that business will have to come to terms with. Yet it may turn out to hold as many opportunities as dangers.
Finally, the book is interestingly produced, is large clear-type and wide margins giving 250 words per page as opposed to the usual 400. This leads to the impression that you are really zipping along and successfully keeping up with the arguments. Probably you are. Schwartz writes so attractively.
Francis Kinsman is a futurist and author; his Millenium is now in Penguin.