Learning from the Ancient Greeks about Scenario Planning

oracle.jpgI was reading an old history book the other day (the quite delightful A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich, which is intended for children but is great for adults to read to, and is available for the first time in English) and came across this fascinating tidbit about the famous Oracle at Delphi:

But it wasn’t only the Olympic Games that brought all the Greeks together. There was another sactuary which they all held sacred. This one was at Delphi, and belonged to the sun god Aollo, and there was something most peculiar about it. As sometimes happens in volcanic regions, there was a fissure in the ground from which vapour issued. If anyone inhaled it, it literally clouded their mind. It was as if they were drunk or delirious, and nothing they said made any sense.

The very meaningless of these utterances seemed deeply mysterious to the Greeks, who said that ‘the god himself speaks through a mortal mouth’. So they had a priestess - whom they called Pythia - sit overy the fissure on a three-legged stool, while other priests interpreted her babble as predicitons of the future…. The answer they received was often far from clear, and could be understood in a variety of ways.

These days we tend to interpret the word “oracle” as meaning a predictor of the future, not an interpreter of it. But there are many ways over the centuries that humans have found to use random-ness to help them interpret the future, or envision a different future, not simply try to predict it. Astrology, tarot cards, tea-leaf reading and even fortune cookies are but a few examples.

At frog we have a set of brainstorming tools we call frogTHINK, and many of these are explicitly designed to introduce this same type of imbalance, and to force interpretation through ambiguity and mental dischord. By forcing people to think of new ideas based on certain random stimuli it opens up new channels of thought that have previously been closed due to habits of conventional thinking.

This is perhaps an under-appreciated aspect of doing scenario planning. Scenario planners typically make several different scenarios each having different outcomes and different indicators, but there is still a tendancy on the recipient’s side to treat them as predictions rather than interpretations and tools for seeing the world in a new light.

And scenarios can also be used to envision possible future states that are meant to “pull” one along rather than be linear projections of existing “pushing” forces. In this sense they are disruptive to conventional thought patterns, and may open up new possibilities. It is the fact that they are vague in the first place that makes them useful. If they were more direct, their value would be diminished as they would leave less room for imagination.