Recently, someone pointed out to me that Future Mapping / Scenario Mapping / Problem Resolution Mapping is a form of Backcasting, a set of strategic planning techniques that work backwards from some assumed future. In researching the use of "backcasting," I found this presentation from the Information Architecture 2007 Summit by Matthew Milan and Sam Ladner that provides a high level overview of how they use Backcasting in client engagements.
I'm a big fan and practitioner of "cards on the wall" meetings (or in Milan and Ladner's case, of Post-its on the wall). Their form of Backcasting and Scenario Mapping share some common assumptions, including: assuming divergent futures, working backwards, avoiding the forecasting frame, interactive discovery, and participant ownership of the results.
In over-viewing the history of Backcasting, Milan and Ladner indicate (slide 11) that the '90s saw the development of "big backcasting," whose liabilities (slide 12) include projects that are complex undertakings, resource intensive, and time consuming. Locating most Scenario Mapping projects in their "big backcasting" category, they have a point. The question is whether these are really liabilities.
Milan and Ladner also indicate that "big backcasting" projects are inaccessible to non-experts. If they mean that the content, results, and recommendations are inaccessible, I would quickly disagree. If they mean that actually facilitating / leading / doing a "big backcasting" project is difficult for non-experts, that often seems to be the case.
When clients have attempted to do Scenario Mapping projects without the involvement of consultants, with rare exceptions they find it difficult to do successfully. Consultants who do a lot of these projects have a wide range of experience to call upon. Internal facilitators usually do these kinds of projects less often. Although they may understand the process, they typically lack a wide range of Scenario Mapping project and facilitation experience. Consequently they often lack knowledge of the many variations and options available to facilitators.
There is another reason why Scenario Mapping is often difficult for non-experts. One of the requisite skills is the ability to assemble, prioritize, synthesize, and "chunk" a very large amount of information. Although this skill can be taught, it seems to require some basic facility. For example, certain Myers-Briggs types are often particularly adept, INTJs and many ENFPs, for example. Thus not everyone will be able to facilitate successfully a "big backcasting" project based on processes such as Scenario Mapping.
There's probably a set of clients for which the Milan-Ladner form of Backcasting is appropriate and cost effective. Although I have not been a participant in any of their projects, I believe that bottoms up, made-up-on-the-spot engagements provides an excellent brainstorming context, a forum for idea generation, and some good ideas that are actionable.
However, you get what you pay for. Scenario Mapping is more complex, more resource intensive and more time consuming. As noted, Scenario Mapping combines simulated hindsight or Backcasting with a high prepared meeting. The work that goes into meeting preparation lays a foundation for more informed decision-making, developing a clear set of action priorities, and in many engagements, the association of responsibilities with action items.
Scenario Mapping participants routinely report that strategy setting aside, they leave with a much expanded personal knowledge base and views of their company, industry, markets, technologies, etc. Although time consuming and perhaps complex, this knowledge base becomes a valuable resource that clients typically draw on post meeting. In short, Scenario Mapping challenges and then enhances the mental models of workshop participants.
Here's a brief overview of Scenario Mapping.
Future Mapping / Scenario Mapping is a set of strategic planning processes developed in the late '80s and early
90s by Dave Mason, Jim Herman, and several others at NCRI. Scenario
Mapping is a form of simulated hindsight combined with highly prepared meetings. Consultants use client interviews, secondary market research, client
information, and the Internet "Infosphere" to create
with their clients a diverse set (3-6) of possible outcomes called Endstates and a set of
Events: possible occurrences that are described using a headline, a
date, and a short description of the Event. In principle, each Event must be at least influenceable by someone.
Participants in a Scenario Mapping engagement assume that the future has happened and are asked how each of those Endstates might have happened. Using the Event "deck" (plus Events during the meeting), participants then create narratives that describe how each Endstate came to be.
The Events and Endstates provide an important baseline knowledge base that is usually missing from make-it-up-on-the-spot processes. This knowledge base is extended, elaborated, and enhanced by participant contributions during various Scenario Planning process steps.
Participant-created narratives may include the key actors, drivers, issues, markets, technologies, etc., but the key is to create a story. Simulated hindsight provides a powerful context for analysis and evaluation of alternative outcomes and what is required to achieve each. Organizations can then choose their desired outcome. Events used to inform the narrative are actionable items that can be further analyzed and prioritized. Responsibilities for each Event can then be determined.