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Reframing service systems methods as project-portfolio conversations: Appreciating the shift from structured methods to agile systems development

Posted on March 02, 2014 by daviding

The Oxford Futures Forum 2014 committee requested an image and an abstract as an application for an Open Space event for 70 participants on May 30-31.  The event description reads:

Purpose and aims

  • Forging and supporting an international community of future-minded practices aimed at stimulating actionable, impactful knowledge;
  • Identifying and investigating academic and practitioner interests at the forefront of scenarios and design, and relating them to each other;
  • Uncovering and pushing the boundaries of scenarios practices and theory, to clarify and extend their effectiveness through critical review and linking with other fields;
  • Enabling networking and publishing  (e.g. two books from first OFF in 2005; a set of sense-making scenarios and two published papers after OFF 2008, which saw another workshop based on the Oxford one organised by Arizona State University; so far one paper from OFF 2011)
  • Leveraging the neutral, highly respected and international convening power of Oxford University.

Theme – scenarios and design

The theme of the fourth Oxford Futures Forum will explore the possible synergies and differences between work on design and the so-called ‘intuitive logics’ school in scenarios.   See “Scoping the Dialogue Space” and OFF2014 supplementary information.

To clarify, in the basic “intuitive logics” method, say Wright, Bradfield, and Cairns (2013):

This model follows the approach developed over many decades by a number of writers … and organizations (e.g. Global Business Networks (GBN; SRI International). It relies upon the application of “intuitive logics” …, and is focused on the development of multiple scenarios that explore the “limits of possibility” for the future, rather than on the development of singular, “normative” scenarios of some ideal future.

A major focus is on how the future might evolve from today’s point in time to the horizon year of the scenario — say 15 to 20 years hence. The intuitive logics approach to scenario thinking analyzes the relationships between:

  • the critical uncertainties (as they resolve themselves);
  • important predetermined trends (such as demographics); and
  • the behavior of actors who have a stake in the particular future (who tend to act to preserve and enhance their own interests).

The intuitive logics approach embraces and integrates consideration of the full set of political, economic, social, technological, ecological and legal (PESTEL) factors that will shape the future. These are wide in range, variable in their interactions, unpredictable in their outcomes, but can be explored and understood by the application of the approach.

Application of the approach enables:

  • Identification of the driving forces of the future that are present in the broad business environment and will impact an “issue of concern” — often the viability of a focal organization and its offering into the market place;
  • Consideration of the range of possible and plausible outcomes of each of these forces; and
  • Understanding of how the forces interact with each other in terms of cause and effect, and chronological order;

The following is a list of the main stages of the basic intuitive logics scenario process:

Stage 1: Setting the agenda — defining the issue of concern and process, and setting the scenario timescale
Stage 2: Determining the driving forces — working, first, individually, and then as a group
Stage 3: Clustering the driving forces — group discussion to develop, test and name the clusters
Stage 4: Defining the cluster outcomes — defining two extreme, but yet highly plausible – and hence, possible – outcomes for each of the clusters over the scenario timescale
Stage 5: Impact/uncertainty matrix — determining the key scenario factors, A and B — i.e., those which have both the most impact on the issue of concern and also the highest degree of uncertainty as to their resolution as outcomes.
Stage 6: Framing the scenarios — defining the extreme outcomes of the key factors, A1/A2 and B1/B2
Stage 7: Scoping the scenarios — building the set of broad descriptors for four scenarios
Stage 8: Developing the scenarios — working in sub-groups to develop scenario storylines, including key events, their chronological structure, and the “who and why” of what happens.

The basic intuitive logics approach to scenario development is thus precisely focused on our first objective: understanding the causal process of how a future state may evolve.

The themes of scenarios and design for OFF2014 led me to to propose a perspective from experiences in software development as service system methods.  The words “scenario” and “design” are surely used in these contexts, but often in a different way.

Reframing service systems methods as project-portfolio conversations: Appreciating the shift from structured methods to agile systems development

This contribution to the discussion starts from concrete practices observable in a specific domain of work organization, and then proposes to generalize towards the more strategic orientation at the core of an Oxford Future Forum.  The general approach is:

  • Appreciate system development — particularly software development — as development of a service system.
  • Recognize the challenge of failure in systems development.
  • Focus on the subdomain of agile portfolio and project management as an approach to work organization of interest to Oxford Futures Forum participants.
  • Review the evolution of approaches in design and scenarios, from structured methods (viz. waterfall) to agile methods (viz. conversations and negotiations)
  • Describe conventional techniques used in the inception phase of a Disciplined Agile Delivery approach:  user stories, agile estimating, agile planning
  • Posit a parallel shift in the business from hypothesis-driven thinking to action research.

In the evolution of practices in systems development — originally in the development, delivery and deployment of software — both design and scenarios have been in play.

Some of the ideas that I could discuss are included in an image contributed to Oxford Futures Forum 2014 group on Flickr.

My application has been accepted.  I had compiled some background research to structure my thinking on scenarios and design, towards the potential goal of publishing a paper.  The Open Space conversation may lead to another direction, so we’ll see where that leads.


George Wright, Ron Bradfield, and George Cairns. 2013. “Does the Intuitive Logics Method – and Its Recent Enhancements – Produce ‘effective’ Scenarios?” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 80 (4): 631–42. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2012.09.003.

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