Scenarios and the difficulties in creating the axes of uncertainty

A few weeks ago, I attended a strategic futures coaching event as a FAN (Future Analysts Network) club member and we spent the day developing our own scenarios about cultural and religious futures. I have developed scenarios before, but never right from start to finish. I found it an interesting process which gave me loads of new ideas about the future but also very challenging, especially in a group of people who work in different areas and have very different ideas about what they think the future might hold. I thought I would share some of the difficulties I had and see if anyone had any stories or tips they wanted share about creating scenarios.

We started off identifying and prioritising drivers for change. The identifying process was possibly the easier bit but once it came to prioritising them (those that are least certain and likely to have the greatest impact), there was lots of disagreement in my group over who certain drivers would impact on, how, and how long different drivers might take to have an effect. We moved on to agree the focal issue and cluster the drivers which then lead us to what I found to be the hardest bit - creating the axes of uncertainty (the frame for shaping and defining the scenarios). The main difficulty here was finding two axes that were sufficiently independent. You have to do this in order to produce four totally autonomous narratives otherwise the scenarios will not be different enough. Each one needs to provide a different story for each end of the spectrum.

The steps recommended to create axes of uncertainty are:

  • Select 2/3 clusters of particular importance to the focal issue.
  • Express clusters as variables that could play out in two opposite ways
  • Use them to formulate ideas for the axes of uncertainty
  • Make sure that the two sets of variable are independent from each other
  • The axes should combine driving forces into four possible future end states

This was really not as simple as it seems, as so many drivers are related, as well as their causes and effects. I have always thought that developing the scenario narratives is the hardest bit of scenario planning but I think creating the framework for them to sit in is much harder as it seems so much more abstract. At least when developing the narratives, you have the extremes created which you can develop the scenarios around.

Has anyone else got any issues they’d like to discuss about scenario planning? Either from any planning you’ve been through yourself or if you’re just about to embark on the process?

Last updated at 18:02 Mon 12/Apr/10.
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Megan 's picture


Third Sector Foresight

A very interesting post Natalie. I agree that creating scenario axes is very difficult. I’m feeling inspired by a conversation I just had with Caroline Copeman about how to think about the ‘so what?’ question (what impact will this driver have on my organisation?) and think that it has some relevance to the problem you talk about. Caroline was talking about a model which encourages organisations to think about how something external to the organisation impacts on the resources available to an organisation (which then impacts on the capacities of an organisation) – I forget whose model it was. Anyway, perhaps by focussing the axes on different resources it is easier to make them independent. To do this your scenario question need to be reasonably focussed – so whereas ‘cultural and religious futures’ may have been quite broad, some scenarios we developed on the future of the advice sector were comparatively focussed. In this case our two axes were reasonably independent because we focussed on different ‘resources’ (although that wasn’t how we thought about it at the time!) One axis was about staff and knowledge and the mode of delivery (remote advice vs face-to-face) and another axis was about how funding was organised and about the relationships with partners/competitors (rationalisation vs networks).

The model is one by Connolly and York. Proper reference: Connolly, P and York, P (2003) Building the capacity of capacity builders, TCC Group. Basically it helps us think about the resources impacted by drivers: time, facilities, human resources, technology, programme design and model (I like this one very much), finance/funding. So if you take your chosen drivers and consider how each might affect each resource area – you open up your thinking. Need to get my head round how you use them in scenarios…maybe just as you suggest!

Dear Natalie,

What is the output of a futures exercise? Some people say that a set of scenarios might be the output that you can expect, but I think that the answer is different. I feel that a good futures project will deliver a set of questions, and those questions will relate to the critical uncertainties.

In our futures projects, we aim to devote 50% of the project to finding the right questions and then about 50% of the time to looking at where we might find the answers to those questions.

In looking for critical uncertainties, if none stand out as clear favourites, then you need to either examine further the assumptions underlying the differing points of view or widen the set of stakeholders present. You might not get the right questions because you are not asking the right people.

Finally, the 2×2 scenario project is the most commonly encountered, but they are n-dimensional. Our last big scenario project (250 people over 4 years) had a 6×5x2 scenario set, generating just under 650 alternative scenarios framed around a single question – admittedly with two halves! The point is that scenarios can be as complex as the time and budget allows them to be, and yet is all boils down to one factor – to ask the right question.

With best wishes,


Natalie's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Thanks everyone for your responses. I was lucky enough to spend all of Friday at the London Futures Symposium with a group of futurists (who are experts in thinking about the future and working with tools such as scenarios) so I took the chance to raise some of these issues there. I was offered lots of tips such as spending more time on prioritising the drivers first, in order to get agreement from everyone about which drivers are the most important and uncertain. When you do this, the two axes should in theory, stand out more obviously. However, everybody seemed to come to the same conclusion you’ve all suggested – our scenario question was not focused enough. We did not know what we were trying to find the answer to or create a scenario for! As Stephen says half the time should be devoted to the question, but in a day long session in which we had to identify drivers, cluster them, then create the axes and scenarios, it was unfortunately something which we didn’t have time to do! So the answer for such short sessions might be to at least have list of drivers first for participants to work from.

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