The Hunt for Grey Swans — Top 15 Methods & Frameworks — #8 Scenario Archetypes

Grey Swan Guild
14 min readJan 29, 2024

Chasing Possibilities, Wild Cards and Extremes by Playing with the Options of the Future

Author: Sean Moffitt, Grey Swan Guild Founder and CEO, Cygnus Ventures

Unless you consider the best-case scenario along with the worst, your brain will steer you toward the seemingly safest path — inaction. But as a Chinese proverb goes, many a false step was made by standing still. You’re more likely to take that first step into the unknown when there’s the proverbial pot of gold awaiting at the end.”― Ozan Varol.

There’s a confession I need to make. I am an utterly addicted and nerdy sci-fi geek. With certain audiences, I shy away from revealing this card -it’s my secret weapon, although sometimes compulsive obsessive superpower. With others, I wear it like a badge of honour (fellow Trekkie George Porifiris, where are you?). Star Trek. Star Wars, Galactica. West World. Black Mirror. Twilight Zone. 2001. Blade Runner. Ex Machina. Snowpiercer. Inception. Gattaca. Omega Man. All the Planet of the Apes. Dune. The whole genre is replete with the finest fiction narratives known to mankind. It is time so well-wasted and also a window in considering scenarios.

Sidebar: To the geeks, wannabes and uninitiated, here are the top 150 sci-fi movies. top 100 sci-fi TV shows and top 100 sci-fi books of all time.

The other reason these are such cool contributions to the human race is that they adopt some of the same fantasy, dystopic patterns of storytelling that mimic life over and over again. They are influential in shaping the public’s image of the future. They drive consideration for different future economic and ethical decisions. They help interpret societal uncertainties and they help imagine seemingly far flung technological concepts & prototypes.

Taken and reapplied, they can be used as blueprints for scenarios in business, organizational. professional and even personal life.

Six Archetypes of Science Fiction Scenarios

Before tackling our eighth method and framework Scenario Archetypes in our Grey Swan series of fifteen (see end of post for artciles in the seires) , let’s shed some light on the topic based on an extraordinarily nerdy academic endeavour by Fergnani and Song back in 2020.

They, and three research assistants, authored a product of their analysis of 140 sci-fi films to create a foresight-friendly six scenario archetypes framework: a systematic investigation that had broader applications. Nerdism rules!

Amidst the chaos of COVID-19, the authors (perhaps having some extra time on their hands) watched and analyzed the most popular sci-fi films, from AEon Flux to Zardoz to see how the future may unfold differently. They forensically transcribed and noted twelve dimensions of change to each movie: economy, (atmospheric) environment, society, organization, protagonist(s)’ characteristics and growth, villain(s), technology, finale, aliens, value system, and way to the future.

Their approach aligns with scenario planning method that develop and tap forces of change outside of the control of the organization (and differs from the visionary and strategic approaches of lighting up your own paths). The authors suggested that these types of sci-fi driven narratives and changes happen over the long-term (from 50 years to 329 years), but we may be understanding better that societal transformations can happen quicker than our movies even think, ushjed in lightning quick when the socio-economic dams break open.

Six regularly occurring archetypes emerged from their data, and were named:

  • Growth & Decay (29% of sample) — rampant and unchecked capitalistic status quo, with corporate reign over policing, security, public infrastructures abetted by technologies used usually for monetary gains; evil leadership, subjugated populations and bleakness reign throughout (e.g. Metropolis, Blade Runner, Avatar).
  • Threats & New Hopes (11%) — human life conditions are very similar to the present, but imminent catastrophic or apocalyptic events threaten mankind through environmental disasters, man-made destructions, or aliens’ invasion; humanity unites for the common good to fight a common enemy (e.g. Pacific Rim, Interstellar, Downsizing).
  • Wasteworlds (9%) — a catastrophic event or phenomenon has already occurred brings substantial post-apocalyptic transformations on a global scale and forcing humans to adapt to drastic life conditions; the backdrop of severe resource scarcity, sustenance level existence and more rudimentary economic systems lead to individuals fighting against each other for survival (e.g. Mad Max, Waterworld, WALL-E).
  • The Powers that Be (21%) — a catastrophic event or dystopic phenomenon, has left a scar on the human species to the point that the human population is often significantly reduced, mankind tries to resume its path to progress quickly thereafter; totalitarian powers emerge with technology advances that are centralized as an instrument of control; rights and happiness are impacted and individuals attempt to emancipate themselves (e.g. Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent).
  • Disarray (5%) — mankind faces structural endogenous problems of crime, social disorder, poverty, ignorance, infertility, violent war, famines, or pandemics; though the private military and policing organizations take control, individuals endeavor to restore justice, order, or protect citizens.(e.g. Idicocracy, Dredd, Children of Men)
  • Inversion (11%) — mankind is turned upside down, as it is outpaced or subjugated by a superior civilization, agent, or organism; superior aliens can be either monstrous or operate with more subtlety (e.g. A Quiet Place, Planet of the Apes, Alien: Covenant).

Note: 14% of films analyzed contained a well-balanced mix that couldn’t be singularly isolated

Seen through the lense of a STEEP analysis, these scenarios had many common drivers and dominant dimensions.

Sci-Fi Archetypes x STEEP Analysis

Fergnani and Song have proposed this six scenario archetypes framework, set in the future, using grounded theory and involving critical, disruptive conditions in the external environment (similar but perhaps more dramatic and transformational than our recent pandemic). It’s exciting new cognitive territory in thinking about the unthinkable more systematically.

You can imagine employing this Trekkie, Jedi-like framework to map and pattern resultant changes to outcomes, success factors, mental model changes, decisions, preparedness, aspirations, confidence and approaches to navigating our most uncertain environments of climate change, or expanding military conflict, or the perils of AI.

We’re going to put our phasers and tricorders away for the rest of our post and mine the universe of more established Scenarios Archetypes. We are going to try to use the force. We can rebuild ourselves, we have the technology (and thinking). Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads! Open the pod bay doors, HAL. The truth is out there. Let’s go where no Grey Swans have gone before.

“Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact.”― Marie Lu.

A reminder of the area our continuing Grey Swan series is covering:

Reminder — Grey Swan Definition: Unlikely but knowable key factors, events and developments, capable of being evaluated and validated in advance, with impacts that could positively and/or negatively shake up the world.

The Full Collection of Grey Swan Methods & Frameworks

Method #8 Scenario Archetypes — The Future Has Options

Scenario Archetypes harness our future-minded right brains envisioning different paths from a conventional future (see the four graphed in our Scenario Archetype canvas above. They consider different arcs across varied situations but with quite similar underlying storylines, assumptions, and trends in drivers of change. These grouping of scenarios called archetypes, facilitate comparisons, contemplate likely trajectories and impacts, trigger important policy and strategy questions, and can be used to collaborate and co-design interventions into different futures, perhaps with more potential than straight line progressions of the past.

The environment under consideration for Scenario Archetypes are factors beyond the control of the organization. The Oxford Scenario Planning Tool distinguishes this well — defining the strategic and scenario domains as two different influence bubbles around an organization.

Scenario vs. Strategic Environments — Source: Oxford Scenario Planning

Scenario Archetypes are powerful in that they explore the outer limits of plausibility of the future. They aim to mobilize actions and intentional steps in the present to avoid or embrace a particular future. Amongst all of our series, Scenario Archetypes are perhaps the most explorative in nature, rather than normative or probabilistic in their development.

Scenario Archetypes and Planning is one of the more established foresight schools coming to prominence in the military following World War II and experiencing a lighthouse use case in the corporate world and role model company with Royal Dutch/Shell successfully addressing the disruption caused by the 1973 oil crisis. Scenario planning has remained in vogue, with 70% more use than pre-COVID 2019.

There are a number of popular scenario planning methods and despite different lexicon, all seem to land on some closely related common 3–5 based archetypes about the future:

We have chosen the four box Scenario-based Archetypes for its power in surfacing the possible, wild card and extremes of Grey Swans.

A sober reminder — scenarios are not predictions or singular good and bad views or reality, but rather narratives that describe how the world might evolve in different ways. They give us a little more confidence and control about future spaces in a world of uncertainty. They help a wide range of actors explore the implications of these stories for your organization or specific future challenge, and how you can respond to them.

Invented by: Political scientist and futurist Jim Dator, director of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Ph.D. program in Alternative Futures in 1979, featuring groundbreaking models of social change in Perspectives on Cross-Cultural Psychology. Dator’s model proposed depictions, stories, scenarios of societal futures that could be classified into four recurring groups with his original labels being: Continuation, Collapse, Disciplined Society, and Societal Transformation. Our visual above closely mimics his categorizations.

Category: Strategic planning, decision-making, foresight innovation method and framework.

Why we Love It as a Grey Swan Tool: Scenario Archetypes can more easily consolidates ideas, acceptances and breakout options from many disciplines about the future; they produce compelling stories that can make better, more provocative sense of a Grey Swan future and that can lead to better action than simple statistical evaluation.

Overcomes the sin of: Knowing with certainty what lies ahead and presuming your next one-to-100 years has some pre-determined path — it simply doesn’t and never has; asking people to just be creative as a planning exercise — some people can, many can’t, Scenario Archetypes provides a structured way about seeing the future with fresh even non-expert eyes.

Work preceded by:

  • Identify specific domain of interest, your readiness to navigate it, critical decisions to be made, strategic questions to be answered; develop the current baseline scenarios and background information.
  • Develop the official future — review internal gatekeepers, historians and change agents, as well as official documents, layer in major internal perspectives, deeply accepted beliefs and contributing forces to the vision of what’s currently expected, ask about any wild cards in the current consideration field that could affect the evolution and pattern of future.

Work followed by:

  • Wind tunnel and stress test scenarios as they proceed into the future — sensitivity and risk assessments to evaluate how current or proposed strategies play out under different scenarios; identify new opportunities arising from changing conditions; host workshops on implications, simulations and decision-responses, model and target research to be overlayed here. Share challenges more broadly with groups with questions or directions that remain unresolved.
  • Make recommendations and produce innovations that are based on scenarios and stories — align on a strategic response. Consider Grey Swan set of side bets not inside the core strategy — create hedge actions and skunkworks projects to address. If warranted and with enough support, initiate a bigger more complete strategy overhaul or venture move, changing direction more dramatically. Identify signposts and indicators to track over time and establish a process for evaluating whether to take action when they indicate that conditions may be changing. Done well, scenarios will become a central part to your executive team, board and regular vision and strategy discussions. Share broadly the thinking behind your decisions with front-line and external stakeholders. Watchout — avoid scope creep of scenario builds— they are one important tool to fend off inside-out orthodoxy but not the only or final word oir destination.

Facets of the Scenario Archetypes:

Scenario Archetypes categorizes possible futures in four ways. Choose any recent crises or disruption and you will see that these four core story frames are deeply embedded in the ways we think about the course of human endeavours:

  • Disciplined — New forms of restraint and control are imposed on the present order to prevent collapse, there is a challenge posed and response made with different potential fates.
  • Continued Growth — The systems and ways of being we live inside continue to develop along, more or less with the band of their current trajectory.

And our heightened Grey Swan interest in:

  • Transformation — Entirely new systems and ways of being are found that transcend the present order; after initial disruption they have both negative and positive overall potenial; of direction.
  • Collapse — Our current trajectory comes to a sudden halt. Our current systems and ways of being fall apart or experience serious regression and dip; we need to come to grips with the decline.

Core Steps we should apply to these four scenarios:

Shape and tailor four scenarios — orient your situation with each scenario through vivid descriptors and evidence. Suspnd judgement on the liekliest scenario. Query and immerse leadership and some of your most interesting thinkers on the deep forces that have the potential to dramatically change the trajectory of your industry and environment.

With leadership’s input, prioritize those paths with the greatest potential impact and acknowledge critical uncertainties — unknowns that might change your industry’s trajectory in one direction or another. Envision preferred futures, different customer persona, new pain points, value impacts, products and services for each future envisioned. Activities can include interviews with experts outside the company and industry; reviews of articles, reports, and other resources to look for early signs of change; and workshops to educate leadership and other stakeholders on forces driving change. The goal is to get a more complete understanding of the broader landscape of issues that will shape your scenarios — leadership is encouraged to open up their imagination and start exploring the boundaries of change.

Rank and categorize fixed, variable and unconventional forces in each scenario. Invest energy in critical uncertainties — triggers, how they might play out and how to mitigate or understand them better. Get leaders to explore the edges of change in each four strategic directions. Support through opinions of outside experts, edge and fringe articles, reports, and other resources to pointing to early signs of change. Shake people credibly form their comfortable ledges.

Develop, script and bring to life each of the four scenarios through narrative stories. Agree on common titles and language to describe your future world and responses. Show how the forces and uncertainties identified might interact and evolve to create surprisingly new conditions in the world. Customize scenario narratives through workshop participants and post-workshop further refinement or synthesization. The work takes on the steps of lateral thought building work sessions, multiple rounds of writing, editing and visualizing, check ins with key stakeholders, research to validate/nullify scenario plausibility, and the creation of arresting scenario (even multimedia) stories designed to stimulate action, urgency and tease out the differences between four possible futures.

Additional Commentary on Scenario Archetypes:

“There is a type of corporate and cultural myopia that afflicts many organizations. No one is immune. The longer businesses, governments and causes operate together, the stronger the gravitational force of their beliefs. Scenario planning efforts like Archetypes can be seen as make-work exercises if not supported by the top level of credible leaders inside an organization. When supported well, Scenario Archtypes can be one of the best defences against ‘that’s how we have always done it’, ‘this is our way — deal with it’ and ‘we just didn’t see that threat coming’. Of course, it also allows the executive function to scrutinize the possibility and impact of Grey Swans without being labelled non-believers. It should be in the core arsenal of any successful extrospective company. ” — Sean Moffitt

Grey Swans — A Month of Specialty Posts:

This is number seven of a set of fifteen posts on different methods and frameworks for chasing Grey Swans. but we have so much other commentary on this valuable but often overlooked chase for the non-obvious:

Stay tuned with us here, as well as on our website for all the rundowns.

Participate in our Hunt for Grey Swans

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Be among the most talented and wide-eyed observers. Let us know your Grey Swan additions and we will add them to our annual collection with our 2024 Grey Swan Guild Subnmission Form. Other benefits and collabroations may follow.

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