Businesses love marshmallows

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, at Stanford University.[i] In these studies, children aged three to five were offered a choice between receiving one small reward immediately (a marshmallow, a cookie, or a pretzel, etc.), or two small rewards if they waited 15 minutes. Of the 600 participants, only one third delayed gratification long enough to get the second reward.

In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better future outcomes, in terms of SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures.[ii]

Just like small children, businesses struggle with delayed gratification. Their desire for the immediate marshmallow hit constantly overrides their quest for better long-term outcomes.

”Scenarios take too long. We need a strategy (or a new product) now, not in six months’ time.”

Yes, scenarios take time. Of course they do. It takes time to research how the future might be different. It takes time to extract insights that are original. And it takes time to reflect in order for new perceptions about the future to crystallise.

But these new perceptions are the reward for the organisation’s patience. They deliver clarity about the future that was previously missing, helping you to act cohesively and with greater confidence.

This clarity is where the time-saving benefit of scenarios kicks in.

Organisations are so busy constantly responding to unforeseen external changes that they rarely give themselves the opportunity to think seriously about the longer term future. With their focus on putting out the latest ‘fire’, or meeting the next short-term target, it’s no wonder that many exist in a state of “temporal exhaustion”. As Elise Boulding correctly diagnosed; if one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imaging the future.[iii]

Scenarios help to overcome the epidemic of “temporal exhaustion”. And in doing so, they deliver the organisation longer-term pay-offs in terms of time, money and resources saved; whilst they might take time, they actually save time. To borrow a phrase from futurist Joel Barker: Speed is useful only if you are running in the right direction.[iv] Effective scenarios point you in the right direction.


[i] Mischel, W; Ebbesen, E; Raskoff Zeiss, A (1972) “Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21 (2), pp. 204–218

[ii], accessed April 3rd 2014

[iii] Boulding, E (1978) “The dynamics of imaging futures”, World Future Society Bulletin, September-October, p. 7

[iv] Barker, J (1993) Paradigms: The business of discovering the future, HarperCollins, New York, p. 208

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