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Scenario planning: What Monopoly and Princess Leia can teach us

In this column, exclusive to HRNZ, Alex Hagan discusses "What Monopoly and Princess Leia can teach us about scenario planning". Alex is a Faciliator on HRNZ's PD Propgramme. If you're interested in learning more about workforce planning please check out our Strategic Workforce Planning virtual course, faciliated by Alex Hagan, starting 15 October. 

 

Monopoly is one of my favourite games, though I firmly believe it’s the second most likely board game to result in a fist fight (the first is Risk). 

Monopoly was supposed to be a moral warning but ended up being an indoctrination tool instead. In 1903, a stenographer called Elizabeth Magie observed that income inequality was growing, and monopolists held too much power. Being a land-owner who charged rent herself, and noticing the increasing popularity of board games, Magie wanted to share her progressive political views beyond the audience of her evening lectures. She created a new board game – ‘The Landlord’s Game’ – in part to teach the futility of the ‘game’ of capitalism, where for one person to win, everyone else has to lose. 

The Landlord’s Game was intended to be a teaching method to show that capitalism and increasing inequality is inherently problematic without progressive taxation on land and unchecked speculation. Magie created two sets of rules – one more closely aligned to what we know as Monopoly today and another where everyone was rewarded when wealth was created. Magie felt that the burden of taxes should be borne by land-holders, and hoped to create two scenarios with the two sets of the rules – one ‘winner takes all’ and one ‘everyone benefits by working collaboratively’. 

In a series of ironic twists, Magie filed for a patent for the game, which was purchased from her for $500 plus royalties by Parker Brothers. However, Parker Brothers had purchased Monopoly, a slight variation of The Landlord Game in which only the ‘winner-takes-all rules’ remained, from Charles Darrow, who in turn had played Magie’s game at a friends’ house. Parker Brothers did the bait-and-switch on Magie, purchasing the intellectual property so that they could sell Monopoly without paying any royalties. The irony is that Magie’s patent should have given her a monopoly on Monopoly.

What Magie had tried to do was to give us the perspective that there was more than one choice – more than one scenario – for how to pursue prosperity. It was supposed to provide a warning to its players that capitalism and inequality are intricately linked, and only government intervention can resolve the tension. Instead, Parker Brothers removed the alternative scenario and generations playing the game have been indoctrinated into the very form of capitalism that Magie was warning against. 

When there was an alternate set of rules, the game could have demonstrated to generations that ‘there is a better way than this’. Now that there’s only one way to play, and the lesson is ‘if it’s winner takes all, I’m sure as hell going to win’.

 

Scenarios provide us with useful alternatives to the status quo. They can also be used to reinforce that the status quo is, in fact, the right approach for the given situation. Without alternative scenarios, however, there’s no choice to make. The way this often plays out in organisations is that there’s little ability to anticipate better business models or approaches. Without scenarios to make an active choice, we stay with the status quo because there is no other option, nor an opportunity to consider one. Princess Leia didn’t decide between Han and Luke until she found out Luke was her brother (after kissing him… Ewwww). With Luke dramatically taken off the table as an option (and presumably her not wanting to make out with C3PO or Chewy), she very quickly hooked up with Han Solo – a complete jerk who has crippling gambling debts and works for a crime syndicate. Sometimes it’s nice to have options.

Scenarios provide us with a narrative to explore alternative options and allow us to make more informed decisions about the choices we make today, by immersing ourselves in tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities. 

A 2018 study shows that future-prepared firms have 33 per cent higher profitability than the average firm because corporate foresight (including scenarios) helps organisations to ‘break away from path dependency [and] help decision-makers to define superior courses of action’. Whereas two-thirds of outperforming firms in their industries had the right level of ‘vigilance’ in using strategic foresight, only 22 per cent of underperformers did – the remaining 78 per cent were either over-prepared to the point of being neurotic and neglecting their short-term operational requirements (22 per cent), vulnerable by doing some, but too little, thinking about the future based on the complexity and change in their industry (33 per cent), or ‘in danger’ by spending no time on preparing for the future. The study identifies three critical elements of competitive advantage by using strategic foresight – a lead-time advantage from ‘perceiving’ activities like environment scanning, an insight advantage from ‘prospecting’ activities like scenario planning, and an action advantage from ‘probing’ activities to validate options against multiple plausible future scenarios. 

 

With COVID-19 dramatically changing the economy and the nature of work and the workplace, it pays to have more than one scenario for the future of work to consider. If your pre-2020 plans for the workforce hasn’t been refreshed with the context of 2020 and its medium and long-term implications, then it might be time to think about possibilities – not predictions – of what the future might bring to build robust strategy today.