Scenario planning interventions in organizations: an analysis of the causes of success and failure

Wright, George and van der Heijden, Kees and Burt, George and Bradfield, Ron and Cairns, George (2008) Scenario planning interventions in organizations: an analysis of the causes of success and failure. Futures, 40 (3). pp. 218-236. ISSN 0016-3287 (

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This paper presents a case analysis of a successful scenario intervention in an organization. This intervention is compared and contrasted with an unsuccessful one reported in Hodgkinson and Wright [Confronting strategic inertia in a top management team: learning from failure, Organization Studies 23 (2002)949-977]. We demonstrate that analysis of the answers given by workshop participants in a pre-intervention interview can be helpful in determining the receptiveness of an organization to a subsequent scenario intervention. We theorize that strategic inertia-characterized by coping patterns of bolstering failing strategy, procrastination (over a strategic dilemma) and buck-passing (the responsibility for the dilemma's resolution), can be caused by the psychological attenuation of the perceived level of environmental threat to the organization, culminating in unconflicted adherence to the currently followed strategy. We contend that the expression of such coping behaviour is antithetical to a subsequent successful scenario exercise since, if the exercise fails to identify an unconflicted strategic alternative, the sharp focus of the scenarios on futures unfavourable to business-as-usual strategy will re-activate the cognitive stress-reduction mechanisms. Strategic inertia will thus be reinforced. We conclude with a review of the implications of our diagnosis for reflective practitioners. Our paper is divided into four sections. In Section 1, we overview writings on inertia in strategic decision making. We pay especial attention to identifying potential causes of inertia. Next, we present Janis and Mann's [Decision Making, Free Press, New York, 1979] views of the psychological processes invoked by conflicted decisions and analyse the relevance of this laboratory-based theory to provide a psychological explanation of strategic inertia. Finally, we briefly describe the scenario intervention process and argue that it contains the potential to overcome strategic inertia. In Section 2, we review an already-published study of an unsuccessful scenario planning intervention, which illustrates the operation of components of Janis and Mann's model. Next, in Section 3, we focus on our own case investigation of a successful scenario planning intervention. The early part of this section documents the 'success', whilst the latter part analyses the causes of the success-again using the components of Janis and Mann's model. We conclude in Section 4, where we compare and contrast the application of Janis and Mann's model to both cases and we demonstrate that application of the model to pre-intervention interview data can aid the practitioner determine, at the outset, whether or not the organizational context will be receptive to the intervention.