How to Change the World . . . Quickly

March 7, 2001 by John Petersen

Futurist John Petersen describes a powerful tool that organizations can use for making a desirable future happen, called “normative scenarios.”

President, The Arlington Institute

Originally published March 7, 2001 on

Why did you take the job that you have–or get married, or go to college, or take some advanced training? There would be specific reasons, of course, you would give for each of these decisions, but you probably have not thought about a powerful thread that runs through every decision in your life and lies at the basis of everything that each of us does.

When was the last time that you knowingly did something that you KNEW was going to make your life worse? I can’t think of anytime in my life. We sometime have to make decisions that will bring short term pain, but at the basis of every decision we make is the assumption that this thing that we are about to do is going to ultimately make our lives better. That is why I went to college, got married, have this job . . . and do everything that I do.

It is almost as though each of us builds a fuzzy (and sometimes fleeting) image in our minds of the relative value of the possible outcomes of a decision and then chooses what we think will give us the most positive (or least painful) outcome.

Let me put it to you another way. What if you just heard that your company had to cut half of their employees. One of your colleagues whispered it to you in the hall. “Did you hear what’s coming?”

What would you do?

I would suggest that the first thing that would instantaneously flash through your mind is the possibility that tomorrow you might be out of a job. You would build a fleeting picture of yourself painfully trying to find someone else who valued your skills . . . before the bills caught up with you. Then what would happen?

If you thought that you were vulnerable, you would immediately change your behavior. You would leap into action. Perhaps you’d call someone who was close to you and tell them about the possibility. Or maybe you’d start calling friends looking for another job . . . or run out to buy a paper to check the classifieds . . . or surf over to HotJobs.Com.

That brief mental picture about a possibly changing future would be the first powerful key to a whole new direction in your life.

In my business–thinking about the future–that fleeting image is a variation of what we call a scenario–a believable, coherent notion about a plausible world that could be on the horizon. Those of us who are scenarists practice a disciplined approach to developing pictures and stories about different spectra of possible futures that revolve around the specific interests of ourselves and our clients. We can’t predict the future, but we can help build a set of coherent images–or stories–about the range of what might happen.

It turns out that scenario planning is, by far, the most effective way presently known for getting an organization to systematically consider the future and change their behavior based upon what might be on the horizon. Why is that?

The reason is pretty fundamental, and it goes back to the basic dynamics of the little mind experiment we just did about possibly losing your job. Mental images are the precursors to behavior change, so if you proactively go through the process of developing the likely stories of the future that you or your organization might have to live with, it will naturally present you with possibilities, both positive and negative, to which you will need to respond.

That is why building the stories of the possible futures of South Africa a decade ago–they’re called the Mont Fleur Scenarios (see–played an important part in the benign transition of that society from a racist government to a representative one. The implications of the major options that were available to the South African leadership became clear: the best path to the future was through a new partnership with everyone involved. The scenarios gave them the logical basis for changing their behavior.

The same thing happened for Royal Dutch Shell about fifteen years ago. They built a series of scenarios about what might dramatically affect the prices of natural gas, and in the process naturally considered the possible futures of the Soviet Union, the holder of the world’s largest natural gas reserves. What became obvious, a couple of years before it happened, was that it was quite possible that a major upheaval could occur in that country . . . which provided the basis for Shell putting contingency plans in place and keeping a particularly watchful eye on the early indicators that might suggest that the “big change” scenario was turning into reality. Again, the credible pictures and stories about the future were the precursors to significant behavior change.

That is the power of scenarios. That is why they are developed broadly within the business, government and military communities. They work.

But they work in a limited way. Scenario planning as it is generally practiced, although proactive in process, is largely reactive in terms of the future. That is, one builds pictures of possible futures, puts in place personal or organizational changes or contingency plans in order to cover themselves against the upsides and downsides of what might happen . . . and then waits to see what in fact happens. The future is an independent variable; we all assume that there is not much that we can do about what actually happens, but we can just be more effectively positioned to deal with the possibilities if we actively consider what they might be.

Although typical scenario planning is clearly a step in the right direction, it is incomplete–for at one level it buys into the idea that the future will just happen. You can control and influence your reactive little piece, but the big picture is out of your control. The industry, the economy, the government, the environment–they’re all out of control. What happens, will happen. Que sera, sera.

But, of course, that is not true. We make the future. We make it in our personal lives. With those we live with we make it in our families. With our coworkers we make it in our company or other enterprise. With our fellow citizens we determine the future of our country. And with all of our other fellow humans on this planet, we decide by what we do what the future of spaceship earth will be. In the end, we all determine the future.

Think of what that means for your company your industry and the world–if not your personal life. Isn’t that what we all wrestle with all the time–getting enough people to all go in the same direction so that a substantial benefit is achieved?

What you’re now thinking about is a notion called a normative scenario or desired future. It turns the tables a bit on the assumption that the future just happens, and proposes that if an individual or an enterprise, or a society, or even a human species develops a common image of a future that they desire, that it is an extraordinary tool for actually making that future happen. This is a powerful idea, because what it suggests is that if enough people adapt a vision of a possible future, they will all change their behavior in ways that are consistent with that image . . . and a new, planned (or visualized) reality is largely what will evolve. At an operable level, all images or visions are potentially self-fulfilling futures. If enough of us change our minds, we will change the future.

Now let’s get practical. If you seriously look at what’s happening in the world–the underlying forces that are in place driving the fundamentals of change and the wild card events that could rapidly redirect the status quo–the possible futures are really quite attention-getting. On one hand, everything might go swimmingly. We will deal with the big problems before they blow up. Technology will provide. Some people call this the Long Boom scenario.

On the other hand, humankind is looking at a set of fundamentals that are unlike anything that we have seen before. There are things like the historically unequalled population explosion, global environmental degradation, extraordinary scientific discoveries and powerful technological inventions that present us with the possibility of literally changing “nature” as we have known it, and the possible proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. All of these things have the same characteristics–they are global in scope, potentially disruptive, and intrinsically “out-of-control”. As human beings, we have neither the experience, nor, in general, the tools, for effectively dealing with events and possibilities of this magnitude and character.

This kind of environment requires a new approach to dealing with the future. It is no longer reasonable–in light of the fact that we are aware of these issues and their potentialities–to just sit back and let the future happen. We are at a time, I believe, of punctuated human evolution–we must rapidly change the way we think, what our values are, and quickly invent some new tools that will help us to make sense of all that is happening. We must actively change our future.

The way we do that is by developing a strong, vibrant set of common visions of our most desired future. We must identify the underlying principles and characteristics–the fundamentals–upon which a global positive future will rest and allow these to become the framework upon which each of us, as individuals and in ever larger groups, can build our own positive outlook about what might happen to us all.

These characteristics are starting to become clear. The systems nature of the world in which we all live suggests that cooperation rather than just competition must start to become a major consideration in all of our deliberations and decisions. We must begin to see things holistically–as a system–in order to make sense out of what we should do and what we want to accomplish. The fact that the US has now decided that AIDS is a national security issue is a current case in point. It is not AIDS in the US that our government is concerned about, but AIDS in Africa that has their attention. For if that epidemic runs out as it appears that it will, there is likely to be large-scale political and economic instability in that continent that will reverberate around the planet, reaching out in significant ways to the US. We are all increasingly connected in innumerable ways that are not at all obvious to the casual observer.

What does this all mean for the future of humanity? I would suggest that it means that each of us, wherever we are, within whatever organizations that we influence, should be developing well-crafted images of global futures that we desire–worlds in which it would be a good place for our children to live–and use these “normative scenarios” as the benchmarks for developing individual images and visions for ourselves and the world. They should be the lens through which we look at the world and make decisions.

My guess is that there is a fundamental architecture of ideas that includes the core goals and aspirations of most all humans and which could be crafted into a vision with a story for all of us. If we always considered our futures in terms of the larger context that we desire for the world, it could become a huge (in fact, deciding) force for fundamental change. It would be our path to a new world–a new future. This new vision would have many variations with common themes, and it would necessarily be developed by EVERYONE, not some planning organization in a government or corporation (although they, of course, could help).

The interesting thing about that is that with the Internet, for the first time in history, it would be possible to develop, communicate and distribute this vision rapidly across the planet. We could literally have a global vision. We could change the future. We could do it quickly.