Imagining or envisioning the future is a key aspect of leadership. Leaders need to ask questions such as :

  • What will our organisation look like in 5 – 10 years time?
  • What skills, capabilities and people will we need?
  • How will we stand compared to others?
  • What opportunities, risks and challenges does the future hold?

Providing answers to these questions requires “scenario thinking”, which helps leaders to imagine the future, especially during periods of uncertainty and transition.

Scenarios are analytical constructs predicated on a diagnosis of the present state – the seeds of the future are contained in the present. It involves leaders reflecting on what has happened and using their intuition to construct how the future might unfold and which paths the organisation may take in the future.

An excellent example of scenario thinking was undertaken in South Africa recently to engage leaders in discussions about the country’s current reality and its possible futures.

In response to the critical challenges facing South Africa, a group of 35 leaders from the government, political parties, business, public administration, trade unions, religious groups, academia and the media gathered together to consider possible futures for South Africa, and the opportunities, risks and choices these futures present.

The process that the leaders used was as follows :

Step 1 – the leaders representing the different sectors of society came together to discuss the current political, social and economic realities facing South Africa.

Step 2 – scenario “stories” on possible futures for South Africa were developed.

Step 3 – A media and engagement campaign was launched to extend the reach of the scenarios to organisations, groups and communities across the country.

The three scenario stories (named the “Dinokeng Scenarios”) that were developed were as follows:

1 – Walk Apart

This is a scenario of “musical chairs”. It is triggered by the failure of leaders across all sectors to deal with the country’s critical challenges. This failure is the result of political factionalism and weak, unaccountable government departments. Civil Society increasingly disengages as public trust in public institutions diminishes. The state is increasingly bypassed by citizens resulting in unaccountable groupings assuming power over parts of society. The gap between leaders and the led widens. Citizens loose patience and social unrest spreads. The government responds brutally and a spiral of resistance and repression is unleashed. Decay and disintegration sets in.

2 – Walk Behind

This is a scenario where the state assumes the role of leader and manager. State planning and co-ordination are seen as central mechanisms for the accelerating development and delivery to citizens, especially poor, unemployed and vulnerable people. The ruling party argues that strong state intervention in the economy is in accordance with global trends. Strong state intervention crowds out private initiative by businesses and civil society. The risks are that the country accumulates unsustainable debt, the other is the state becomes increasingly authoritarian.

3 – Walk Together

This is a scenario of active citizen engagement with a government that is effective and that listens. It requires the engagement of citizens who demand better service delivery and government accountability. It is dependent on the will and ability of citizens to engage with authorities and the quality of political leadership and its willingness to engage citizens. It entails a common national vision that cuts across economic self interest in the short term. This is not an easy scenario. There are many issues that need to be contested and it requires strong leadership from all sectors, especially from citizens.

These scenarios provide a set of options and choices for the people of South Africa who will need to make tough decisions to avert the unravelling of the gains they have made since democracy in 1994. The responsibility for addressing these challenges cannot be solely attributed to government – leaders from all sectors need to take responsibility and act together to solve the country’s challenges.

Scenario thinking helps leaders to construct the future, how the future might unfold and what opportunities, risks and choices are open to them. The example set by the Dinokeng Scenarios provides us a clear example of how scenario thinking can be applied in practise.