If you’ve been following me anywhere on social media or listening to the podcast, you know I’m low-key obsessed with the Dobbs ruling and the way it will affect our college campuses. To my mind, there is no question of whether it will affect colleges…the question is when and how we’ll see those effects: how long will it take for us to identify and recognize them, the pace at which we’ll experience them, and whether we’ll respond like at the proverbial frog boiling in a big pot.
All of this brings to me the very exciting topic of … planning.
Hey, was that an eyeroll? Hold up. We are not going to have the standard, dull, strategic planning conversation.
Nope. We’re going to talk about the importance of stories and storytelling.
Stories are magical. Stories build empathy. They tug at our emotions. They create emotional release. They create shared memories. They hold us together. Our brains love stories.
Think about it. Think about your favorite cultural gatherings, where you tell the stories that are the bedrock of your shared history. Your after-work happy hours, where you share the small bits of story that made up your work day. Your alumni magazine, which is 100% about telling stories that shape perceptions of, and build affection for, your institution. Your campus colleagues processing their feelings about prior administrations by relaying stories – the good and the bad – about how they led.
Stories are at the heart of everything we do together.
It is likely that stories are as old as language itself. We tell each other stories to entertain each other, to make sense of the world, to explain the seemingly inexplicable, and to pass down traditions. We’ve been doing this for a long, long time.
And I bet you are NOT using stories when you plan. And I want you to. Not just because I’m an English major who wishes she could still spend her days lounging around reading books. (Although…no lie, that’s a bit of it.)
I want you to use stories in planning because telling and rehearsing stories is a powerful way for your institution to plan for an uncertain future.
This is not my original idea. For much of what I’m about to share I draw from a book published in 1991 called The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz. This book, now more than 30 years old, is based on work he did in the previous decades, and the ideas weren’t even original to him. Still, his ideas have become the cornerstone for many futurists and future strategists.
I was introduced to this book by a provost I used to work for, who was seeking ways to help our institution get more creative in our problem-solving. And, as those of you who love the liberal arts as much as I do know, stories are an excellent way to unleash creativity.
Schwartz’s ideas are dated (the future he was looking at in 1991 was the year 2005) but his concepts and approach stand the test of time. Using stories to build scenarios is a good way to make sense out of ambiguity and disorder. It also forces us to challenge our assumptions about “the natural order of things,” and to change our mindsets by expanding our imaginations to see both options and opportunities that are radically different from our traditional world-view.
I offer this suggestion now because the uncertainty about Dobbs has the potential to paralyze us. It would be easy to think about having a significant increase of pregnant students on campus and if that’s really far outside your experience, you may brush it off as “not likely here” or even tell youself yourself “We’ll deal with it when — and if! — it happens.” But if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that lack of preparation, which requires us to constantly fight fires because we haven’t had time to plan, is exhausting. Even more, it’s unnecessary. We can see much of what’s coming, even though we may be uncertain about how exactly it will all play out.
Over the next few years we are likely to see continued uncertainty about the sanctity of our democratic elections, additional life-changing supreme court decisions, demographic changes that affect college enrollment, instability in the US’s reputation and standing in the international community, and the still-evolving face of healthcare services for women. It’s true that we don’t know what exactly will happen, or when and to what extent we’ll feel the effects. It’s NOT true that we have to wait for them in order to prepare for them.
Scenario-building is essentially storytelling about what the future might look like. If you craft multiple stories you can cover a wide range of possibilities, and then you can begin deciding, as a team, how you want to prepare to respond. If you revisit these scenarios regularly enough you can keep your responses timely and relevant, even as you plan to dedicate needed resources early enough to reduce the strain on your campus community.
Schwartz’s scenario planning has a few crucial steps: identifying the factors in your environment that are driving change; identifying what he calls “critical uncertainties”; creating a range of scenarios that take those factors and uncertainties into account, and then “rehearsing” those scenarios by asking yourself to imagine living in that story now and figuring out how you want to respond. I’ve put together a guide you can use to start using storytelling for planning. I used some common factors and uncertainties, created four different scenarios and stories, and then ask a series of questions that will help you rehearse those stories. I didn’t do this to predict the future — the purpose of this exercise is specifically NOT to “be right” about what’s going to happen. But these stories give you a starting point to see what this work can look like. If you’re interested in trying this process with your team, go ahead and download and share the tip sheet and use it as a framework as you craft your own scenarios and write stories that are relevant to you.
As context for that tips sheet, I’ll lay out seven team-building steps you can follow to prepare your colleagues to do the complex work of planning for an uncertain future through storytelling. This isn’t quick, easy work, but then again, good planning rarely is. However, it’s a proven method for helping teams think differently about the environment they’re in, and prepare to address potential events as they unfold. I think you’ll find it worth considering.
Planning Step 1: Prioritize Diversity
Schwartz’s basic idea is that to prepare for a possible future you have to understand what has shaped that future and called it into being. This is fundamentally an interdisciplinary endeavor, requiring us to explore economics, public health, politics, international relations, technology, scientific advances, population shifts, and so on. If you want to tell a story with all these components, you’ll need to gather a diverse group of people who have great variability in both their expertise and experience.
So your first step in planning is to prioritize diversity. Invite many diverse voices into the conversation. You need identity diversity – because people with different identities have had different life experiences and therefore have different views on the world – and you need cognitive diversity – because people who think differently from each other will bring more ideas to the table and help the team produce more creative solutions.
But don’t just give lip service to prioritizing diversity. You can’t just throw different kinds of people into a situation and hope for the best. Your job as a leader is to ensure your diverse teams are working in conditions where their diversity matters. Team members must feel safe and empowered to speak, and they must be able to listen to each other. If these conditions don’t yet exist for your storytelling teams, spend some time improving that. Help folks get to know each other, understand their purposes and roles in this process, and see the value of their individual and group contributions. Show that you value diverse, creative solutions. Liberate them to do their best problem-solving.
This diverse team will be ideal for helping you identify the environmental factors and critical uncertainties that provide the setting and backdrop for your stories. You want people who see the world differently to help decide what the key ingredients are for these scenarios. For some folks it will be money and the economy; for others it will be politics; some will focus on families, some on public health, some on social justice for the historically excluded, some on law. Giving the teams the task of identifying these key features together will produce a better-rounded sense of what the future might hold.
Planning Step 2: Choose Your Direction
Once you’ve gathered – and empowered – your diverse teams and they’ve established the background and setting for your scenarios, give each of them a direction for their story. Schwartz recommends four different directions, and these are the four I’ve used in the tip sheet I drew up for you:
Status Quo Scenario
Think of this like Waiting for Godot, the famous Beckett play where two men sit waiting for an important event — the arrival of the man named Godot — that they think will happen today and then they are told will surely happen tomorrow. They sit and wait. Godot never arrives. Nothing changes. The status quo continues.
Best Case Scenario
One of my favorite “happy ending” movies is Little Miss Sunshine. In this movie, a family goes on a roadtrip with lots of drama: their aging VW bus breaks down, grandpa gets sick and dies and the family smuggles his corpse out of the hospital and into the back of their van, the teenage son goes through emotional catharsis, the family nearly misses the beauty pageant that is the reason for the road trip in the first place, and their daughter’s performance causes an uproar in the depressing hotel conference room where the pageant is taking place. But it’s all OK, because the family rallies behind her and publicly supports her with a crazy-happy dance party at a moment that would otherwise be an embarrassing social disaster. Even best case scenarios with happy endings include setbacks and drama. Because tension, resolution, and catharsis are at the heart of many great stories.
Worst Case Scenario
With the pandemic on my mind, a good worst case scenario example is the movie Contagion, in which an international traveler who dies a sudden and gruesome death when she comes home is traced as “patient 0” in a global outbreak of a deadly virus. The outbreak demolishes the global population, while food and supplies run out and people fight each other over limited resources, and families cope with unexpected death and destruction. It seems so unlikely that shaking the hand of a butcher with infected blood on his hands could lead to the end of civilization as we know it, but then again, we are still reeling from the Coronavirus, so….
Having an outlier lets you be creative and imagine something that probably won’t happen but could. I love the movie Zombieland for this example. It’s a mash-up of farce, horror, science fiction, and action-adventure. A bunch of rag-tag misfits find each other as they drive across the country protecting themselves from killer zombie attacks. It has blood, and gore, and shotguns, and love, and loyalty, and Twinkies, and a random and charming cameo with Bill Murray. It’s a story about something that could happen, except for the zombie bit, so minus one bit of implausibility, this outlier actually gives you a lot of reasonable possibilities to chew on.
Planning Step 3: Write your Shitty First Draft
Now that your diverse teams have established the background and know what direction their story will take, they’re ready to write their Shitty First Drafts.
Coined by Anne Lamott in the book “Bird by Bird,” a shitty first draft is the draft you have to write in all its ugly, playful, inarticulate messiness because if you don’t write it, you can’t go on to write a good second draft let alone a prize-winning third draft. You have to start somewhere, and the shitty first draft is it.
I’ve included it here as a more specific step than just “write your scenarios” because your teams are going to be storytelling at the complex intersection of difficulty and vulnerability.
First, writing is hard. Nobody writes brilliantly the first time around. Honestly. The act of writing requires great vulnerability. You have to be willing to sound stupid, type ridiculous sentences, and let nonsense come tumbling out of your mouth and through your fingertips onto the page where it stares back at you in all its embarassing glory. But you have to do that in order to get something written that you can, in the words of one of my writer friends, “heat, hammer, and shape” into the story you want to tell.
Second: this is hard enough when we’re sitting safely alone. Now imagine being that vulnerable with a group of people – all of whom are also expected to be that vulnerable with you. This could be off-the-charts painful. Who among us gets excited by the idea of looking basic in front of others? As the teenagers in my house say, nah, bro.
You need to prepare your diverse teams to write shitty first drafts by creating the conditions in which they feel safe enough to fail with each other. If your team is strong and solid and regularly works this way, you’re golden. But if you convened a team that is new to working together, or that has people at different levels of your organizational hierarchy, or includes folks who are accustomed to be talked over or not listened to, you are going to have to do some work to prepare them emotionally to write shitty first drafts. Make time to do that work either before, or during, this stage.
Planning Step 4: Revise to Get to Your Good Second Drafts
You don’t need to go any further than a pretty good second draft, because this isn’t a story-writing contest. What you need from each scenario is clarity and context sufficient to make the story understandable.
Most writers write something bad, walk away from it, and come back to it later with fresh eyes and maybe even another reader’s perspective. Try to create those conditions for writing and revising for your diverse storytelling teams by spacing out the deadlines between their SFDs and their revisions.
If this isn’t something you’ve done before, consider asking for guidance from the faculty on your campus who teach writing. If you’re able, draw on their expertise by inviting them into this process as you’re designing it.
Planning Step 5: Identify the Impact of Each Scenario
Now you have four interesting, rich stories of what the world could like in the future if different environmental factors come into play.
For each scenario ask a series of questions: what do the people living in this version of the future want? What do they value? What kinds of choices will they make? How will they behave? How will these choices, behaviors, and values affect your industry? Don’t ask about your campus – that’s too specific for this stage. Identifying the impact is about understanding larger – global, national, or even regional – shifts that will affect you locally. So for now, stay focused on the big impact.
Planning Step 6: Rehearse the Future
Remember, your scenarios are not meant to be predictions. They are just stories that give you a way of exploring a potential future reality, or even identifying it, in whole or in part, as it unfolds.
Now that you know your scenarios and you’ve identified how each one is likely to change people’s perceptions and actions, you can rehearse each future. For Schwartz, this means “run[ning] through simulated events as if you were already living in them” which helps you “train yourself to recognise which drama is unfolding.” This provides the information you need in order to figure out how you will adapt locally to these more global changes.
Rehearsing the future encourages you continuously to explore the environmental factors leading to each scenario; to be alert to events as they occur (because, since you’re not predicting anything, those events could come from anywhere – they could be in any one of your scenarios, and even in none of them); and to identify resources you’ll need ahead of time so you’re not scrambling at the last minute.
Rehearsing the future is where you apply your answers and implications to your local situation. For this to be as rich as possible, pull your full team together. It’s beneficial if, for example, the storytellers from the Status Quo join the rehearsal of the Outlier, because they’ll see things from their story even if they’re also occurring in this other story. They’ll also see different things than will the teams who wrote the other scenarios. This is where the power of identity and cognitive diversity really benefit your problem-solving.
So rehearse the futures, and rehearse them together. Take advantage of all that identity and cognitive diversity in the room.
Planning Step 7: Continue rehearsing and act on your findings.
Don’t rehearse the future once and then put this exercise away. Remember, this is a storytelling activity. Stories are powerful because we repeat them, we remember them, they move us, they create empathy, they encourage us to connect to somebody or something. Tucked in a drawer, a story is lifeless.
So keep exploring these stories. Keep rehearsing the future. Meet on a regular basis – maybe every quarter, maybe twice a year. Ask which pieces of the stories you’re seeing in the world. Use the stories to keep you connected to the world as it changes, and to motivate your responses to it.
So now you’ve got a roadmap — seven steps to take to get to good storytelling you can use for planning for the future. Let me say just a bit more about why this is so important now.
I think back to how virtually everybody I know responded to Covid. We got in a room, and we started putting out fires in order of the heat of their burn. Many of us were in situations where we kept working that way even into the second year of the pandemic. A lot of really good things came from that – without the luxury of making drawn-out, fully measured decisions, many of us tried creative, experimental things that we could implement quickly. And we kept iterating that process every time the virus changed its behaviors. We became excellent at pivoting — and most of us came to hate that word, as well.
Now, more than two years after the initial shut down, many of us have been able to step back and look at our choices and changes during those years and decide what we want to sustain and what we want to ditch. Many of us are changing our work habits or work environments. Many of us are changing our priorities, both on-campus and off. Our students have changed their study habits and attendance patterns and we’ve developed ways to adapt and support them. We have learned a lot and now that we’re not crazily putting out fires we’re able to act on some of it.
One of the key lessons I’ve learned, and it’s a lesson I’m seeing many colleagues around the country internalize, is that a lack of preparation and a reliance on adaptive responsiveness comes at a high cost – and for some of us, too high a cost. This is not the only factor in the rampant burnout and skyrocketing resignations we’re seeing, but it’s a significant one. So I’m proposing that one lesson we should learn from the pandemic is…not to let pandemics take us by surprise. The next one – at least, if it’s a contagious virus – won’t, since we already have a host of ready responses.
But we know we have a coming population shift, with fewer traditional-aged college students available to enroll, which in turn threatens an enrollment crisis for non-selective schools, especially those operating on tight margins. We know that historically and internationally, lack of access to reproductive health care both threatens the lives and health of women with disproportionate effects on women from historically excluded groups, and that having children is a leading cause of women needing to pause, delay, or fully stop their formal education. We know that our students already have much more urgent and pervasive mental health care needs than we are accustomed to. We know, too, that Republican states experienced significant drops in international enrollments during Trump’s presidency, and that when polled, international students cite both physical safety and access to medical care as top concerns when they are choosing where to study abroad. And finally, we know that Clarence Thomas has essentially told us to prepare to have additional rights to privacy withdrawn – that is, if you’re a member of a historically excluded group – and that during their confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch misled the Senate on their positions about overturning legal precedent.
All of these factors create massive uncertainty about the future. But storytelling and rehearsing the future will help us prepare for a range of potential scenarios that could emerge. Let’s get started.
Go ahead and download the handout “Planning for an Uncertain Future Through Storytelling,” share it with your colleagues, and map out your planning timeline. Then convene your diverse teams from all corners of campus and get your colleagues preparing for the future. And when you do, drop me a note to let me know how it’s going. I’d love to hear from you about the challenges and rewards you experience while going through this process.
Grab resource guide Planning for an Uncertain Future Through Storytelling. Its yours to share with your team.
References and suggestions for additional reading
The Art of the Long View: Planning for the future in an uncertain world, a book by Peter Schwartz.
Scenario-Planning for the Future, by the Long Now Foundation. (kind of a Cliffs Notes version of Schwartz’s book) @Medium.
The Diversity Bonus: How great teams pay off in the knowledge economy, a book by Scott Page.
What Functional Leaders Should Know About Scenario Planning, by Jackie Wiles @Garnter.
Rehearsing the Future: Making Better Strategic Decisions, an article by David Seaman and Liz Barnham @B2B International.
Shitty First Drafts, an excerpt from the book Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamott.
US: Roe Ruling ‘Latest’ to Impact International Student Decisions, an article by Abigail Lindblade @The PIE News
Republican States Saw Big Drops in Overseas Students Under Trump, an article by Ellie Bothwell @Times Higher Education.
Roe-Reversal Exposes the Ever-Growing Value Gap Between US and Allies, an article by Christina Lu @Foreign Policy.
Global Survey Highlights Increasing Importance of Student Supports During the Pandemic, an article at ICEF Monitor.
A Second Demographic Cliff Adds Urgency for Change, an article by Ray Schroeder, Inside Higher Ed.
The Demographic Cliff is Already Here, And It’s About to Get Worse, an article @ EAB.
Colleges Can Steer Away from Higher Ed’s Demographic Cliff, an article by Andy Hannah @Higher Ed Dive.
The Demographic Cliff Goes Well Beyond Traditional Undergrads, an article by Scott Jeffe @Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
Could Clarence Thomas’s Dobbs Concurrence Signal a Future Attack on LGBTQ Rights? by Zak Beauchamp, @Vox.
In Roe decision, Justice Clarence Thomas Invites New Legal Challenges to Contraception and Same-Sex Marriage Rights, by James Barragan, @The Texas Tribune.
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