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June 16, 2007

E-Coaching Tip #48 (Summer 2007) Using "What-If" Scenarios -- Flexing Our Minds with Possibilities

Using "What-If" Scenarios -- Flexing Our Minds with Possibilities

Picture this. You are the manager of large grocery store, but the number of new food products and variants, such as yogurt cheerios, apple cinnamon cheerios, etc. seems endless. Oh, if only you had infinite shelf space.

Or picture a variant of our current political and philosophical world. In alternate or counterfactual history, writers ponder scenarios that explore possible worlds if our familiar history was not so familiar. Some scenarios explore questions such as, "What if Socrates had died before his philosophy was written down by Plato?" (Hanson, 2002) or "What if FDR's life or circumstances had been different in the 20th century -- with seven different scenarios? (Ward, 2002)

In the case of the store manager wistfully desiring a world with infinite shelf space, this wish has virtually been granted. This new world is persuasively described by Chris Anderson in a 2006 book called, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Examples of infinite shelf space abound today, Anderson posits, for books, music, and other media, enabling marketers to profit from low-volume and unique, specialized interests of consumers. This phenomenon, Anderson argues, will reshape common culture into infinite niche cultures. How this will, in fact, play out is unknown, but even a partial reshaping of mass culture will have significant effects. One of the challenges that current marketers face is how to profit from this infinite shelf space and alternatively how to understand and shape consumer behavior.

Do you think that a scenario of infinite shelf space might have been the focus of a business course of 15 to 20 years ago? What types of scenarios might you want to use in your course -- to encourage thinking in new ways and of new possibilities?

This tip examines some possible uses of "what if" scenarios in your course and when you might want to use them. Let's look at a definition first.

What are "What If" Scenarios?

What are "What if" scenarios? "What if" scenarios are a specific type of a larger group of problem solving and interactive teaching and planning strategies. Some of these other strategies include role-playing activities, simulations and case studies. All these strategies share a common characteristic of student engagement and student decision-making. These types of activities enable students to be involved and engaged on both intellectual and often, emotional levels. When working on these learning activities, students evaluate and analyze, make decisions, observe results and then make additional decisions dealing with the consequences of earlier decisions.

Why Use "What if" Scenarios?

Here are four reasons for using "what if" scenarios in your course?

1. Using "what if" scenarios encourages spontaneity and flexibility in thinking. When a group explores what-if scenarios, they are basically dealing with fictionalized events. One requirement for this fiction, however, is that once a context has been established for a scenario, the happenings within the event must have internal consistency.

In "what if" scenarios there are seldom right or wrong answers, but rather possibilities. Devising scenarios is relatively straightforward because all scenarios, real or imagined depend on a set of assumptions. Change the assumptions and you have a new scenario. Have Socrates die earlier and his philosophy is not written down. Assume that you have fixed shelf space or assume that you have infinite shelf space. Assume that gas prices will be at $6.00 a gallon. Change the assumptions and then examine the results.

2. Using "what if" scenarios in your course often helps students develop confidence in what they know or don't know. Exploring the assumptions behind the scenarios requires that students examine their own knowledge structure and communicate what they think and why.

3. Using "what if" scenarios is often an excellent device for keeping the course content fresh for both faculty and students.

Getting Started with "What If" Scenarios

How do you get started with scenarios? Here is one way. Search out case studies in your field and then change some of the variables and some of the assumptions. In fact, taking a case study and then having the students identify the core assumptions and then have your students suggest a different set of assumptions or happenings can itself be an excellent group activity.

If you want to control the design of a scenario, build your question for a group activity around a change in an influential figure, such as a scenario in which Al Gore became president in 2004. What may be key event in your field today had that been the case? This could be a scenario to explore for a leadership course, political science, for economics, for example.

Next Steps with Scenarios

In an earlier tip we briefly looked at the coming world of virtual worlds in learning, such as Second Life. If you would like to follow up on a current status of that now, before the next tips, check out an article on Virtual Worlds at http://www.elearnmag.org/subpage.cfm?section=articles&article=44-1.

Scenarios, while very engaging and effective interactive teaching and learning tools, also present challenges in assessing what students have learned and planning and taking time for these activities. Other tips will take up these challenges.


Anderson, C. (2006). The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More Hyperion (July 11, 2006)

Cross, Jay; O'Driscoll, Tony; and Trondsen, Eilif. Another Life: Virtual Worlds as Tools for Learning. SRI Consulting Business Intelligence http://www.elearnmag.org/subpage.cfm?section=articles&article=44-1

Hanson, V. D. (2002). Socrates Dies at Delium, 424 B.C. What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. R. Cowley, Berkley Trade; Reprint edition (October 1, 2002): 427.

Ward, G. C. (2002). The Luck of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. R. Cowley, Berkley Trade; Reprint edition (October 1, 2002): 427.

E-Coaching Tip #48 (Summer 2007) Using "What-If" Scenarios — Flexing Our Minds with Possibilities



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