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The Art of the Long View

The scenario method was first employed by the U.S. Air Force after World War II as a way to plan military strategy by imagining what opponents might do. Herman Kahn, one of the leading futurists of the 1960s, modified the approach for use in business forecasting. Then, in the early 1970s Frenchman Pierre Wack, a planner in the London offices of the international oil company Royal Dutch/ Shell, began to use scenarios as a way to initiate change in individual and institutional behavior. “Pierre Wack was not interested in predicting the future,” Schwartz wrote. “His goal was the liberation of people’s insights.”   

Wack’s vision became Schwartz’s inspiration. When Wack retired, Schwartz took his place and from 1982 to 1986 headed scenario planning for Royal Dutch/Shell. In his 1991 book The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, Schwartz describes how scenarios are developed and applied, and he shares his experiences with leading corporations. It was named the number one business book of 1992 by Industry Week magazine.   

To those planners who argue that the scenario method is not quantitative enough, Schwartz is quick to point out that data can just as easily blind a person as inform him. Effectively using “what-if” stories requires a great deal of research, particularly in areas one might not ordinarily explore.   

Schwartz sealed his reputation as a futurist when he and his team at Shell developed some highly unlikely scenarios. One was the possibility that the price of oil would plummet. Another was the position that if a virtually unknown man named Gorbachev were to come to power in the Soviet Union, it would signal massive economic restructuring and shifts in international politics.   

International experts—including the CIA—said the futurists didn’t know what they were talking about. But the scenarios were grounded on solid research and Shell was able to seize an important competitive advantage because its senior managers had considered and prepared for these eventualities while the rest of the world was still worrying about the threat of war and wondering how high the price of oil would climb.

Casting a Global Net

Schwartz now had the clout he needed to start his own company. In 1988, he and four colleagues founded Global Business Network (GBN) in Emeryville, Calif., just across the bay from San Francisco. Schwartz called GBN an “information hunting and gathering company” designed to connect clients to a network of remarkable people and highly focused, filtered information.   

The nature of the company was shaped by the character of the people who founded it: Schwartz; Jay Ogilvy, former Yale philosophy teacher and director of research in the Values and Lifestyles Program at SRI International; Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Well computer network; Napier Collyns, a longtime veteran of the Shell planning group; and Lawrence Wilkinson, an alumnus of Oxford and the Harvard Business School and president of Colossal Pictures.   

From the outset, GBN was a unique proposition. Unlike most consulting firms that build walls around their people and jealously guard their ideas, the founders saw their new Global Business Network as a company based on openness. “People would share their insights and knowledge, and take away our insights and knowledge in return,” Schwartz recalls. “The simple truth was that, as individuals, we each wanted the network for ourselves. By selling it to client companies, we could make it more formal, and expand it beyond what any of us could individually afford.”   

They enrolled men and women whose strengths in highly diverse areas would enrich the network. Individual members, who may join by invitation only, number more than 100 today. They range from academics like Michael Porter of Harvard Business School to British rock musician Peter Gabriel; from anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson to software architect and technology futurist William Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems.

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