The two second advantage and memories of the future

Stuart Henderson’s mention of The Two Second Advantage (see the LinkedIn discussion referred to in the post from earlier this week) reminds me of the work of business strategist Arie De Geus, who discusses how learning organizations use scenario planning to create “memories of the future”.

It seems to me that this idea has potential not only in looking at emergent trends in evaluation (such as those Stuart is asking about on LinkedIn), but also as a lens we can apply to programs and organizations to help them consider how to ‘future-proof’ themselves.

De Geus points out that, although we can’t predict exactly what changes will happen in the future, it is possible to brainstorm a few different possible scenarios about what might happen.

Some scenarios will be more likely than others – some will seem almost certain; some will seem incredibly unlikely; some may incorporate natural disasters or substantial shifts in the world or in the community (either gradual or dramatic).

The scenarios may be developed – minimally or extensively, depending how likely the scenario seems – into contingency plans (i.e., What would we do if …).

The idea behind scenario planning is this:

  • We know from psychology that the human brain is more likely to spot the early signs of change if the person has rehearsed the possibility beforehand. [I am sure some clever person has a citation for this!]
  • Likewise, organizations are more likely to perceive change early – and have ideas for how to react effectively to take advantage of it – if they have gone through the process of dreaming up the various possible future scenarios.

Now, how might this help programs and organizations build strength and sustainability?

Think of the kinds of major and minor changes that could have major impacts on what the organization does or how it does it. Examples might include:

  • A key funding source completely disappearing or dramatically reducing
  • An immigration policy altering the demographics (and therefore the needs) of the population they serve
  • A new technology enabling them to access remote areas, or making some aspect of their services obsolete
  • A natural disaster such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or flood
  • Two or three key people leaving the organization

Evaluations often have to answer questions about the sustainability, transferability, or applicability of programs, services, and activities over time, over space, over borders. One way of doing this is to help stakeholders think of possible scenarios and how well equipped the program or organization or community is to handle them.

Scenario planning is a tool that, as De Geus says, helps organizations create “memories of the future” that can help them detect the early signs of even unlikely change and to be better equipped to respond to it.

I am sure the folks involved in disaster-preparedness and emergency evaluation have a lot to say on this topic, as will those working in countries where political volatility is high and those with an interest in complexity and unpredictability – please chime in and share your thoughts!

2 comments to The two second advantage and memories of the future

  • Our organization used scenario planning to produce future histories of Greater Philadelphia, and we’re taking them to the next step by setting priorities based on the common denominators of success across all scenarios. Although not inexpensive, it’s been a great experience. You can read about it on (initiative microsite) and

  • Jane Davidson

    Thanks for sharing this, Allison – looks very interesting!