Future Perfecting

How scenario planning at Herman Miller will help us create better places to work

Written by: Amber Bravo

Artwork by: ETC

WHY Magazine - Future Perfecting

In the late 1960s, Ari de Geus and Pierre Wack, two strategists at Royal Dutch Shell, concocted a novel approach to corporate strategic planning. Inspired by physicist, mathematician, and nuclear strategist Herman Kahn’s approach to systems theories during and after WWII, de Geus and Wack researched and wrote a series of stories that could plausibly come true given present realities in the world, the oil industry, and at Shell. These stories became the context for high-level strategic planning, known in certain circles at the time as “scenario planning.” (The term “scenario” actually came from novelist and screenwriter Leo Rosten, who freelanced at the Rand Corporation with Kahn.) Scenario planning is largely credited with preparing Shell, unlike its competitors, for the 1974 OPEC oil embargo. Today the process serves as an intellectually rigorous, cross-disciplined means of internal forecasting on a macro level.

At Herman Miller, scenario planning fits quite naturally with the company’s problem-solving approach to design. As former Herman Miller design director George Nelson astutely observed nearly a half century ago, “design is a response to social change.” To find the best response requires a broad understanding of likely social changes around the world. Herman Miller has researched four sets of scenarios, beginning in the late 1990s, working closely with Chris Ertel at Global Business Network for the last two of them. The most recent scenario project turned a lens on the year 2018 (the previous sessions focused on 2007 and 2012), and, like those sessions, pivoted around the question of how the world—and more specifically the world of work—will evolve. The answers speak not only to broad strategic issues facing us, but also how it will influence design and development strategy.

Brooklyn-based design studio ETC, interprets the possible futures imagined by Herman Miller's 2018 Scenario Planning experts Mimi Ito, Grant McCracken, Steve Weber, and Scott Doorley.

Brooklyn-based design studio ETC, interprets the possible futures imagined by Herman Miller's 2018 Scenario Planning experts Mimi Ito, Grant McCracken, Steve Weber, and Scott Doorley.

To begin the process of writing the 2018 scenarios, Herman Miller held a two-day symposium for a group of employees and a diverse panel of invited experts; their task was to devise a set of “driving forces” and “critical uncertainties” that determine how the future might play out, and based on those, to develop scenario themes. “We include a variety of backgrounds and a variety of different kinds of thinking and skill sets in our team,” says Scenario Project Lead Maryln Walton, “to develop broad thinking and to spread the experience into as many parts of the organization as we can.” Based on their expertise, visiting participants were asked to tell stories about the future. Steve Weber presented his story through the lens of a political scientist; Mimi Ito through the lens of an educator and digital media expert; Grant McCracken through the lens of creativity and design; and Scott Doorley through the lens of a computer scientist and entrepeneur. “Applying expertise can be quite challenging when thinking about the future,” says Chris Ertel. “Some academics in particular have a fairly strong attachment to their own ideas in a way that isn’t always helpful. A phrase we like to use is: we’re seeking experts who have strong ideas that are loosely held.”

Ultimately, one of the goals of scenario planning is to synthesize the entire group’s knowledge, experience, and thinking into a set of plausible outcomes. “We aren’t trying to identify all the possible futures. These are hypotheses, not predictions,” says Walton. “Scenario planning really helps you percieve things differently—it opens up your mind to new ideas. We start asking different questions, challenge our thinking, challenge the team’s thinking. That’s what’s really important.” In addition to the the final set of stories, Herman Miller also commissioned contributions from writers in China, France, Russia, Brazil, and Australia to see how these possible futures might play out around the world to broaden the scope of the project and increase its relevance and utility.

Herman Miller’s three 2018 scenarios—titled Polarized World, New Normal, and Data Sphere—are currently in development. As our conclusions and hypotheses from these stories continue to evolve, we will be able to determine tangible design objectives and help our business—as well as our clients’ businesses—better respond to social change.