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  • We Do Not Know What the Future Will Be, Except That There Will Be One
  • Charles B. Lowry, Ph.D. and M. Sue Baughman

During 2010, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) undertook a scenarios planning project intended to provide a useful new tool for research libraries to apply in the context of planning. The outcome of this effort provides an important resource for improving planning processes. For instance, in considering the normal process of strategic planning, it is standard practice to do an environmental scan to help in assessing the near-term problems that an organization faces. Once that is done, too often the plan that emerges looks a lot like the present or is, at best, slightly incremental in looking forward. This is true in libraries as in other organization. Yet, our literature, our meetings, and, indeed, our daily conversations all are replete with references to the uncertain future and the need for new transformational strategies to carry us into that future. But—what is the future going to be like? Nobody seems to have a clear crystal ball, and the record of “future casting” is spotty at best. Maybe all we know about the future is that there that there will be one. Perhaps that is why it is easier to avoid the exercise of trying to anticipate it and to simply crank out humdrum strategies that do not transform anything. However, if we really do believe that libraries are awash in change, somehow we have to break this pattern and find a way to imagine a different future.

As we consider reasons to break the mold of standard thinking about the future, three quotes from John Maynard Keynes are relevant—“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, but in escaping from old ones.” Keynes also observed, “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” This has been variously interpreted to mean that he was interested in short-term rather than long-term gains. In fact, he was saying that inflation would inevitably get out of hand if left to take care of itself over the long haul, equally true for the future of libraries. [End Page 887] Finally, one last bit from Keynes—“It’s better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”1 There are three elements of scenario thinking that are captured by the great economist in his three quotes:

  • • Breaking out of traditionally framed modes of thinking about the future is essential.

  • • Assuring that our thinking is truly aimed at managing a future that will surely differ drastically from the present is necessary.

  • • Framing our thinking about the future with enough “roughly” correct scenarios that prepare us for what happens in the end is more important than procrastinating in hopes for “precision.”

Scenario planning is designed to help accomplish this. As defined by Jonathan Star and Doug Randall,

[It] is a well-established tool for helping managers deal with situations of significant uncertainty. A scenario project involves a series of exercises where management teams creatively and collaboratively probe the uncertainties that an organization faces today and may encounter in the future. The result is a set of narratives, usually three or four, that describe the different directions that the future could plausibly take. Having created and considered these alternative futures, management teams are better able to navigate both denial and paralysis, and reach sound decisions about emerging growth opportunities. Scenarios help deal with denial. By articulating challenging, yet plausible ways in which the future could evolve, scenarios encourage management teams to “think the unthinkable,” anticipate surprises, and rehearse new possibilities. In scenario exercises, we encourage teams to think about what strategies they would pursue under very different scenarios or external circumstances.2

Scenario planning has come into wide use in business and government, and its use is expanding into the not-for-profit world. The advantage of a scenario planning process is that it postulates not one but a variety of possible futures to be used as rubrics to think about and to deal with different organizational futures. No single scenario can ever capture the future with accuracy. On the...


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pp. 887-894
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