Scenario Planning at Vodafone

In 2000, just after the UMTS licence was purchased, Vodafone Group R&D Netherlands began a scenario project on “mobile commerce in 2005”. Paul de Ruijter and Daniel Erasmus facilitated the workshops.

Vodafone Group R&D comprises seven R&D centres worldwide, including one in the Netherlands. Group R&D focuses on applied research, as opposed to the fundamental research carried out at universities. It applies new technologies from researchers and other suppliers to the telecoms industry. In 2000, just after the UMTS licence was purchased, Vodafone Group R&D Netherlands began a scenario project on “mobile commerce in 2005”. Here, Jasper Burden, Programme Manager at Vodafone Group R&D, looks back at the process and what happened afterwards.

Selecting a scenario topic
“Scenarios can be applied within the company in different ways and on different levels. The classical literature on the Scenario Planning methodology usually speaks of an implementation at top level, i.e. where strategies are being developed. But in my opinion, it can be implemented at any level in the organisation. You need to determine which level you want to work on; be aware that the outcome of the process will be particularly interesting for that specific level. If you select the right topic on an operational level, the chances for success are higher, because at this level, people are experiencing actual dilemmas. In a dilemma, a decision about which way to go must be taken, you have to go either left or right and “suffer” the consequences of your choice. So the topic you select must have a significant impact on the company in order to make participants of the project come up with solutions.”

Applying Scenario Thinking
“Scenarios can be used at top level to be able to develop strategy, anticipating future dilemmas. For this purpose, I believe scenario planning should be an ongoing process that is carried out every year. In our project at Vodafone, the key benefit of scenario planning was that all top executives started to speak the same language. That way you can debate a topic and get all the different visions on the table, and then come to a joint definition of the problem. The identification of the dilemma is really a secondary benefit, because defining all sorts of (technical) problems is too far from top level management skills anyway.
On an operational level, scenarios help to solve a dilemma where it is necessary to make a decision to go either left or right to be able to continue. Here, scenarios help to take a peek down the road that you are about to take; which obstacles can you expect?”

Facilitating a scenario process
“The facilitator of a scenario process is required to be very flexible and at the same time strict. The whole process, of course, must be flexible enough to bring out the best of the participants, but the facilitator must be able to carry out the chosen path through to the end without wasting time on discussion on the process instead of on the issue at hand.
The facilitator should do his homework properly and develop a tailor-made process for the group he is supporting. Scenario projects on an operational level require a different process than on an executive level. With a good facilitator, the available time can be spent working on the issue, not on discussing the process.”

Experiencing the scenario process
“The beginning of the process is very exciting. You kick-off with a group of people from different places in the organisation, with different skills and ideas, working together towards a common solution to an issue. The process usually starts with a brainstorm, which is the fun part of the process. After a while, all ideas have been suggested, people are “empty”, and then the analysing part begins. People are lazy by nature and when the issue gets more complex and they are required to really get to work, they tend to lose interest. At this point, the facilitator needs to pull the group through this dip, which puts a lot of strain on him as discussions will get more and more emotional. If he manages to bring all suggestions back to a few key aspects, the enthusiasm will return. Participants will see that reducing all findings to a limited number of key forces, does not mean that all interesting details will get lost.
You end up having only a couple of driving forces, which you can easily link back to the hundreds of ideas you started off with. This will mark the beginning of a higher interest in the process: participants have been able to create something jointly, in order to make something significant out of a huge and complex issue. It is a challenge for the facilitator to take the group through these stages.”

Involve other parties in a scenario process
“Vodafone recently started up a new scenario project together with a supplier of mobile phones, that was well known for their experience with scenario planning and the application of scenarios as part of their strategy process. We wanted to learn from their experiences, since they act in the telecom industry as well. Most literature on scenario planning is about very different industries, e.g. oil, so it is very interesting to hear about their findings.
Apart from that, as I mentioned earlier, Vodafone’s Group R&D tries to apply new technologies that suppliers develop, so it is only logical to identify possible synergies with other companies and end up with new joint research projects where we could both benefit from.”

Successes and failures of the 2000 mobile commerce scenario project
“The main success of the project was the fact that scenario planning offered a way to look at an important problem in a particular way. The topic that we had chosen was a very complex one; there were many different opinions on how to solve the issue. The process enabled us to simplify the complexity and the issue became “graspable”. What to do slowly became evident during the process. Apart from that, we learned a lot from the interviews we conducted in preparation for the workshops. The many different opinions within the company were elicited and registered and offered a very clear view on what was happening internally. A rare and most interesting opportunity!
Although the scenario process in itself was a success, the impact of the results turned out to be disappointing. Afterwards it became evident that this was due to the fact that we did not appoint one specific owner of the project who was to make something out of the findings. Shortly after the process the whole company changed and the suggestions from the project were not taken forward. So I would advise determining a topic carefully to select the right person to take the deliverables forward into the organisation.”

The real value of a scenario process
“As I said before, the major conclusion that resulted from the Vodafone scenario project in 2001 is that you never really realise how people within the organisations look at the same topic in so many different ways and from different angles. Also the level of creativity of the ideas we came up with was very high. We could not have achieved that level if we had looked at the issue internally. That was a huge benefit for me; bringing more players together stimulated the creativity.”

Interview: Paul de Ruijter and Daniel Erasmus