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Will scenario planning help us navigate post-Brexit uncertainty?

It has now been several months since Britain’s decision to leave the EU on 23 June. A lot has happened since the chaotic early days after the referendum result and we now have a new government in place. However, there is still a lack of clarity around the impact Brexit will have as we look further into the future. Newsnight’s Emily Matliss expressed the sentiment well on a broadcast earlier this month when she said that the word ‘uncertainty’ isn’t going to go away any time soon.  

We often talk about the increasing pace of technological and societal change, but for many, the referendum result was contrary to assumption. It was change that was not expected to happen and in the aftermath of such change, which is complex and has far-reaching and dramatic consequences, it is no wonder that people and organisations are left feeling uncomfortable and uncertain.

As a futurist, a question I have often been asked since the result is: “did you see this coming?” The answer is yes, of course. It is important to remember that a futurist’s role is to help people explore and plan for an uncertain future – not to make predictions. On a referendum that was being called pretty much 50:50 until polling night, it is hard to imagine a circumstance where uncertainty could be greater.

I also recall the last time we experienced a significant shock to the consensual economic and geopolitical worldview – the 2008 financial crisis. And many asked: “why did no one see this coming?” Actually, plenty of people did. The signs and portents were there and easy to read through basic horizon scanning. Certainly, some futurists had scenarios for a financial crisis and there were even voices from the dismal science that pointed to crash rather than continuity

But why was there no pre-emptive action? Let me offer a futurist’s perspective.

Limited or incomplete foresight

The purpose of scenario planning is to make future possible futures real in the present. This is achieved through horizon scanning and scenario planning – broadening our outlook to entertain a spectrum of possible futures, rather than assuming a single future extrapolated from persisting continuity. The goal is better decision making, reduced risk and the ability to explore new frontiers of innovation.

Firstly, many organisations simply don’t do much foresight. Planning is carried out with a short (less than three years) horizon and continuity is often assumed. Whilst many engage in innovation activities, these are often incremental and based on a worldview that differs little from that of today.

Often organisations will go to great trouble to spend time exploring possible futures and creating scenarios but then simply stop and fail to follow through. There is certainly great value in the shared experience of creating scenarios, but much of that value is destroyed if they subsequently remain on a shelf ignored. The greatest value in scenarios lies in exploring in detail their implications and then modifying strategy and behaviour accordingly. 

A post-Brexit panacea?

So is better foresight and scenario planning a panacea that will rescue us from the current fog of post-Brexit uncertainty and chaos? 

The referendum result has delivered a shock to well established systems of economics and governance. Uncertainty abounds but there is an opportunity for organisations to make use of scenario planning to help them make sense of the changed world. Whilst we now have a new government in place, the direction of travel of the many parties and stakeholders involved in Brexit negotiation is still in flux so it makes sense to plan for various scenarios, rather than to assume any single outcome.

It is also important to recognise that to benefit from scenario planning, organisations will need to be prepared to invest significant time and effort, and where necessary, make a series of short sharp iterations as the post-Brexit landscape unfolds. Remember also that the scenarios themselves are just a “working” phase, and the important outputs are the implications and changes to strategy and behaviour that their creation will drive. 

To be well prepared for such strategic reframing, organisations can also benefit from preparing the ground – clarifying the purpose, use and users of your scenarios and conducting some focused horizon scanning. This will help to ensure that your scenario planning will really pay dividends.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our approach to Brexit, view our Brexit web page.

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