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Criticisms of scenario planning as undertaken by law departments

Intriguing and intuitively attractive, scenario planning has a buzz about it.  This blog has several posts that refer to it, but as yet I have not challenged the technique (See my post of Aug. 25, 2009: uses of scenarios in legal departments with 18 references; March 1, 2010: elaborate scenarios at Microsoft; Aug. 15, 2011: scenarios as training tools; and Dec. 1, 2011: base rate neglect when we think about scenarios.).  Here are some of my doubts.


  1. Little empirical evidence exists that compares the vaunted method to other methods of strategic planning.  We always read about Royal Dutch Shell, but not much else.
  2. Participants may not be able to think creatively, out of the box.  They are much more likely to extrapolate from the present but in a world full of unanticipated interactions, straight-line projections often go awry.
  3. Interactions are not considered.  It is one thing to assume one change and carry out the implications; it is much more difficult yet realistic to introduce other things that would respond to that change and interact with it.
  4. The scenario planners probably don’t go out far enough.  Major trends take a long time to unfold, yet most people don’t have visibility several years out.
  5. To imagine the future is especially challenging for lawyers, many of whom are risk-averse, skeptical, competitive, and find it easy to attack someone else’s “far-fetched” idea.
  6. Some planning exercises, on their face neutral and objective, are in fact ideological, political, power plays aimed to reach a predetermined end.
  7. The leaders of the group, and the members, may make no effort to put on the table what they take for granted or will not address elephants in the room.  Unstated or unchallenged assumptions warp the accuracy of scenarios.
  8. Like all group efforts, success is more likely if a skilled facilitator guides the group and even more so if there is training for the group members.
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