The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Environmental Scanning: A Strategists Competency

  • Published
  • By Dr. Brooke Taylor

“Clearly, the first task is to gain acceptance of a more reasonable view of the future, one that opens possibilities rather than forecloses them.”

—Herman Kahn, Futurist, Founder of the Hudson Institute 


Thankfully, no country has detonated an atomic or thermonuclear weapon since World War II.1 Even though deterrence is constantly responding to and adjusting to threats it remains an effective strategy, “but it may not apply in contemporary and future cases for reasons that are evident in history.”2 Today Russia continues to disregard the concept of arms control by developing hypersonic conventional and nonconventional nuclear missiles.3 China, the world’s third largest nuclear power, blatantly refuses to enter any arms control discussions and is projected to double its arsenal within the next ten years.4 The United States (US) is currently in the process of modernizing its nuclear arsenal while working with allies to prevent fissile material proliferation.5 So far within this 21st Century geopolitical landscape, deterrence has been an effective strategy preventing the use of nuclear weapons. However, if deterrence fails, no nation should assume future nuclear use would be limited to a single nuclear attack, or adhere to deterrence lessons of the past.6 When it comes to nuclear decision making, US leaders are forced to understand challenges and mitigate risks posed by adversaries. Some of these adversaries are nuclear powers, while others are nuclear posers, but each must be evaluated seriously.

Nuclear warfare is a matter of importance with existential consequence. This pushes researchers to focus on imagining and planning for an uncertain future in which the status quo is challenged. Hard questions lead to discovery and innovation to ensure the continuity of strategic deterrence.7 Environmental scanning may prove effective and offer researchers opportunities to solidify understanding of strategic deterrence concepts and apply such research in a practical manner.

In planning for an uncertain future scenario planning is a widely used methodology by researchers. Emerging as a strategic planner’s instrument post World War II the effectiveness of scenarios provides a construct in how to think about plausible futures. Herman Kahn, who is credited with introducing scenario planning, measured the uncertainty of nuclear warfare through scenario development. In thinking about and planning for an uncertain future inclusive of national security paradigms both involving both conventional and non-conventional warfare, how can researchers be certain the development of their scenario narratives is relevant and based in reality versus an illusion that is neither practical or attainable?8

Environmental scanning precedes scenario development and is a useful research practice to include in the development of wargame design and strategy formulation. It is a critical first step in providing researchers methods that help prepare for developing conditions and trends as they emerge in the external environment.

Environmental Scanning

“Breadth + Depth = Foresight with Insight” – Andy Hines

There is a distinction between environmental “scanning” and an environmental “scan.” Scanning is an on-going, year-round process that involves examining trends and events in an external environment that have implications for the defined stakeholders. Scanning demands an independent focus of resources in terms of personnel and funding dedicated to this focus.

A scan is dedicated to the same process of gathering data around a focal issue. Conducting an environmental scan is focused on a particular issue.9 For example, in an environmental scan that is concerned with analysis related to strategic deterrence, a researcher could look at nuclear command, control, or communications (NC3) as a specific subset of that focus. For those interested in discovery and resulting implications, a scan is an appropriate exercise since the time and resources involved is a lesser commitment compared to an ongoing environmental scan.

Ultimately, a scan is focused on collecting, communicating, and synthesizing information.10 There are various methodologies of conducting an environmental scan. A researcher may decide to rename a step, streamline the process, or expand various components. The researcher is aware of conditions, criteria, and outcomes of the scan. Creativity is expected within the exercise.

Strategic Foresight

“Vision without execution is delusion.” – Thomas Edison

Environmental scanning is a process that involves strategic foresight. It includes strategic thought as the channel through which foresight is applied. “Strategic thought and the ability to systematically forecast is a shared responsibility in an increasingly interconnected and interactive society where professional silos no longer exist.”11 It is important to have a clear vision of the future, but such a vision needs to be based on a process of foresight, rather than one’s inspired or fantasy-driven ideal of the future.12 In fact, “self-delusion and wishful thinking are barriers to strategic foresight.”13 Foresight is not a practice that reinforces personal bias or belief. Rather foresight is a systematic process that allows the researcher to intentionally engage with data that evokes both an analytical and emotional response:

Strategic thinking has an analytical “hard side” coupled with an artistic “soft side.” The analytical side is the cognitive or critical side in which one collects and evaluates quantitative information. The artistic or synthesis side refers to development of a vision and culture through qualitative thinking and creativity. Both sides are crucial because strategic thinking requires more than just using your head to analyze; to see the entire picture, you also must use your heart. Where synthesis takes smaller parts and combines them into something larger, analysis takes something large and complex and breaks it down into smaller components.14

Foresight may or may not be thought of as the crux to strategic deterrence’s continuity within and beyond the 21st Century. For the researcher concerned with practical application and techniques that refine strategic thinking, which is a broad school of thought, foresight is the key to further define this focus.

Foresight is the ability to see what is emerging and to understand dynamics of a larger context and to recognize new initial conditions as they are forming. Honing the skill of foresight is one method in meeting this challenge. Foresight influences the future by responding to emerging trends.15 A key difference exists between foresight and prediction. Foresight acknowledges that the future is ambiguous and aims to prepare decision-makers for the future.

In an ideal world if leaders could foresee with unflawed clarity the impact of emerging trends and could further calculate the risk of these threats, improved decisions, and establishment of priorities to fulfill these conditions may result. This ideal state will never be met, so instead leaders grapple with how to best measure and make informed decisions despite constantly changing variables that create uncertainty. A fundamental challenge that leaders are forced to consider “is how to make strategic decisions given the uncertainty of the future.”16 Honing the skill of foresight is one method in meeting this challenge.

Foresight and Focus

Environmental scanning develops foresight through the process of mapping. Mapping is the first step to any strategic activity.17

Mapping begins with determining a focal question that will identify key stakeholders and driving forces that will influence this focus. The tendency is to reflect upon historical events or data as predictors of future outcomes. Predictions try to remove uncertainty from the future by forecasting what will happen based on the likelihood of certain events.”18 Such predispositions are highly likely to derail the exercise and should be avoided. In looking forward it is prudent to not dismiss history. However, relying on the past as predictors of future outcomes is detrimental to foresight.

The focus should avoid being overgeneralized. For example, asking, Will nuclear warfare occur in the future? is too broad. The focus of foresight is not to predict the future. Rather the focus of foresight is to explore the plausible events or trends that will define and shape the future. In forming the focal question researchers should avoid being too narrow. For example, a focus question that is too specific asks, Is nuclear warfare between Nation A and Nation B certain to occur in X year as a direct result of condition Y? The focus of strategic thinking is not to push a researcher toward an outcome that is right or wrong. Narrow focal questions encourage linear thinking that is not useful for forecasting, which is often a very fluid process where complex ideas, values, and data intersect.

Strategic Environment

The strategic environment includes national security, domestic, military, and international environments. The strategic environments include actors that control or influence the context in how these factors are applied.

Actors engage and behave differently in the context of their assigned strategic environment. For example, a general officer and an elected official evaluate problems and prescribe solutions very differently according to their assigned roles. In addition, actors may move between different strategic environments depending on the context of this role. Such movement within the environment increases complexities in analyzing and assigning plausible attribution to these actors. This further increases uncertainty.

In an environmental scan, the researcher must account for and acknowledge these actors, their motivations, and context of potential actions that are relevant according to these roles. Understanding this tradeoff allows the researcher insight into self-interests and motivations that ultimately drive the environmental scan’s focus.


The operating environment is oftentimes the concentrated focus for the military leaders’ decision calculus. The importance of expanding this focus cannot be underscored in preparing for an uncertain future. An environmental scan provides a wide lens focus considering a complex strategic environment concentrated with complexities. Determining priorities through such a focus as an environmental scan, then allows for implementation and creating strategy within the operating environment.


Elements of An Environmental Scan

There are consistent elements that should be included in an environmental scan. These elements are finding, analyzing, framing, and applying.

  • Finding is the process of uncovering the scanning or hits. These are open-source, raw data that are primarily, but not always, discovered online. The purpose of finding is for the researcher to step outside of their comfort zone. Finding allows the research space to explore beyond the norm. In this process, the researcher must strive to develop awareness of mental roadblocks within their thinking that impairs their ability to make sense of the big picture that an environmental scan creates.


  • Analyzing is the process of making sense, or ordering, the information that is discovered. The scanning intel or hits begins to become synthesized into trends. These trends then become the fundamental unit of analysis. For example, a strategic deterrence environmental scan may use technology, government, economics, military, industry, social, and classified as units of analysis in framing the trends into practical units for further study.


  • Framing is the actual framework for organizing trends. The researcher must systematically begin to contextualize the trends. A graph or categorizing the research into units of analysis on a spreadsheet is useful in organizing the trends.


  • Applying is the emergence of insights generated from the scan that result from a strategic foresight activity.19 It is the last phase of the environmental scan exercise. This application may be a change in how to strategically assess a specific threat or potential risk discovered within the exercise. The researcher understands the variables that are within the realm of their ability to apply change in the external environment. Most of the time applying is more influential within the internal context of the researcher’s sphere of influence. 20

It is possible a researcher may feel a sense of information overload in working through the finding, analyzing, framing, and applying stages of the environmental scan. Resolving or finding a solution for each piece of information works contrary to the focus of the process and may lead to analysis paralysis. Such an aggressive emphasis to remedy each hit or piece of intel is contrary to the broader focus that an environmental scan is designed to accomplish.

Environmental Scan’s Process 

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” – Helen Keller

At this stage, the researcher is prepared to begin constructing the environmental scan’s gamebook and gameboard. These materials are what players use when conducting the exercise. The following are considerations to take into account when constructing the environmental scan.


Environmental scan’s history is largely represented within the business sector.21 This is where context matters in transferring a private industry exercise into a process that may hold influence for uniformed leaders.

The application of an environmental scan is transferrable in its benefit for the military. When studying strategic deterrence, it is the responsibility of the researcher to be cognizant of service culture. Priorities for business leaders and military leaders are distinctly vast.

Private industry leaders hear the word loss, and profits come to mind. Service members hear the word loss, and lives come to mind. This same distinction applies to gains, risks, advantages, challenges, opportunities, and stakeholders.

Beyond educational purposes, a researcher should collaborate with representatives from the target group the environmental scan includes. For example, an environmental scan that forecasts trends specific to nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems should involve collaboration with experts familiar with these processes.

An environmental scan should not reinvent the wheel.22 Vet the information gathered through the finding and analysis phase through subject matter experts (SME). Include helpful inputs these leaders provide to offset where the researcher’s abilities may be shortsighted.


An environmental scan should be a fun process. While the subject matter is serious, the creation and design of the exercise is a creative process. Creativity is historically a lesser stressed focus within professional military education. The emphasis and importance of creativity is increasing in assigning importance among senior military leaders.23

Foresight exercises are visual and interactive. Participating in an environmental scan may be a new exercise for many individuals. The researcher should work to take these considerations into account. From this regard, the environmental scan must be a user-friendly exercise.

There are no bounds to creating the environmental scan gameboard. In fact, radical innovation is about changing the magnitude of the researcher’s efforts.24 Radical innovation is what leads to breakthrough and change. The gameboard should visually capture and allow the exercise participants to immerse themselves in the process of exploration that leads to discovery and such innovative change.

Designers should channel this sentiment and focus on creating the gameboard. Should deterrence fail the enterprise is unparalleled, unmatched, untouchable, and unstoppable. This is not happenstance. Radical innovation is woven throughout strategic decision making as well as research and development capabilities of the nuclear arsenal both past and present. Commitment to strategic foresight may be thought of as additional assurance of the enduring survivability of the US nuclear arsenal.

The design should push the limits of capturing the interconnectedness of the data. Complexity of strategically thinking through the environmental scan focus question should be visually communicated within the design. The gameboard’s functionality and ease of use should be simple for the participants as well.

Below is an example of a gameboard used in a NC3 environmental scan exercise. This was a novel design in addressing the concerns of the research design and invited gamers background and subject level expertise. Here the researcher identified technology, government, economic, military, social, industry, and classified data as the trends most critical to the exercise focus.


Figure 1. Proprietary. Dr. Brooke Taylor’s Environmental Scan Map Designed for USAF Senior Leaders NC3 TTX and utilized by Air Force Global Strike Command Strategic Foresight Eductional Table-Top Exercise 25

Each trend is assigned a color code that is plotted on the map. The map charts the data across a thirty-year span that is plotted in five-year increments. Time is measured as a constant in the gameboard design. This is visually represented through rings that are evenly spaced between the five-year increments of time.

Every data point is connected to each other. The players are provided a comprehensive gamebook complete with data pertinent to the exercise. This gamebook presents data discovered in the previous mapping finding and analysis phases. This data is organized into sections that correspond through the outyears. This syncs the gamebook with the gameboard.

Each trend is assigned the same color pawn. The player can chart paths along the time continuum and across each category. Information is more readily available in the present. This is visually communicated in the map’s center as each categories color is concentrated with the other colors. As the data points intersect in the outyears information is lesser known and color concentration disperse.


Players may be pre-assigned into teams or teams may be randomly drawn. Each team should be assigned trained leaders to assist the players. The team leader’s role is to serve as a SME.

The team leader should be familiar with the learning goals the environmental scan is designed to accomplish. Practical examples of preparation for team leaders include reading the gamebook’s data. In addition, team leaders may conduct a dress rehearsal. Working through the material and map allows team leaders to familiarize themselves with the experience environmental scanning provides.

The researcher, team leader, and player have no control of outcomes once the exercise begins. Strategic thinking can evoke emotion. Player’s comfort levels in grappling with complex issues, in an unfamiliar exercise, under time constraint is challenging. “Even when prepared, the unknown of personalities, level of participants’ receptiveness, and the unforeseeable direction the actual exercise takes can be daunting.”26

If there is more than one team participating in the environmental scan, teams should come together as a class, or group, to share their findings. Role-playing is a creative application that teams may consider adopting in the debrief. A debrief is a common method where results of an experiments are shared in a complete and accurate manner.

For classroom instruction, “Futuretelling is a version of storytelling, which shows your user(s) in a future context.”27 Players would synthesize their environmental scan discoveries into narratives that tell a story. This provides perspective and insight.

At the same time, Futuretelling immerses the class into the exercise as a collective whole. Building narratives emphasize the vastly different interpretations that can be produced by the gamebook and corresponding gameboard. This highlights the complexity that strategic foresight attempts to resolve.

The players should also provide interpretations and recommendations produced through the game. This may take the form of a presentation, paper, or report. An environmental scan helps leaders “anticipate, evaluate, and prepare for situations or conditions in the external environment that could impede ability to create the preferred future.”28


The future is an equalizer in an environmental scan. No one can predict with absolute certainty what is to come. Expertise, education, and experience are welcome contributions to the exercise. Even within personal accomplishment and education, environmental scanning focuses on what is not known within the classes of knowledge.

Constant self and group awareness should be given to ensure information is not manipulated to confirm bias or distorted to prove oneself or others as “right” or “wrong.” An environmental scan is an exercise of humility. It brings players together as a team. Teams unite through an experience of tackling a challenge. Then, teams disperse to apply lessons learned within their individual sphere of influence.

An environmental scan is not about a team winning or beating the game. It is a commitment to a process devoted to analyzing the external environment. Emerging trends are indicators that provide insight into potential risks of future nuclear decision making. There are no winners should deterrence fail.

Dr. Brooke Taylor
Dr. Brooke Taylor is the Chief Academic Officer for the Small Business Consulting Corporation. Dr. Taylor is the creator and principal investigator for Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) National Nuclear Strategy and Global Security Workshop for Practitioners. Prior to this, she managed AFGSC’s near-peer competition program where she developed and facilitated scenario planning table-top exercises. She designed a novel top-secret Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications environmental scan table-top exercise utilized in executive education for senior military leaders. Dr. Taylor was a U.S. Congressional Nuclear Security Fellow where she managed appropriation portfolios for Defense, Energy and Water, and Military Construction and Veteran’s Affairs. In addition, she was the manager for the Congressional Nuclear Working Group. 



1. “Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” History, June 6, 2019,

2. Keith B. Payne, The Great American Gamble, 346.

3. Mark Schneider, “Russia and Conventional Deterrence,” National Institute for Public Policy, December 13, 2018,

4. Rebeccah Heinreichs, “The CCP’s Refusal to Join the U.S. in Arms Control Talks Intensifies Concerns about China’s Nukes,” National Review, July 8, 2020,

5. Rod Nenner, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick,” The Washington Times, July 9, 2019,

6. Louis René Beres, “Nuclear Decision Making and Nuclear War: An Urgent American Problem,” War Room, November 8, 2018,

7. Tim Morrison, “Testimony: Near-Peer Advancements in Space and Nuclear Weapons,” House Armed Services Committee: Strategic Forces Subcommittee, accessed February 27, 2020,

8. Keith B. Payne, Shadows on the Wall: Deterrence and Disarmament, (Fairfax, VA: National Institute Press, 2020), 130-144.

9. Ibid., 69.

10. Hugh Courtney, 20/20 Foresight: Crafting Strategy in an Uncertain World, (Boston, MA: Harvard Busines School Press, 2001), 148.

11. Brooke Mitchell, “Scenario Planning for the 21st Century Military Strategist,” Wild Blue Yonder, April 27, 2020,

12. T. Irene Sander, Strategic Thinking and the New Science: Planning in the Midst of Chaos, Complexity and Change, (New York, NY: The Free Press), 141.

13. Andy Hines and Peter Bishop, Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight, (Washington, D.C.: Social Technologies, LLC, 2006), 18.

14. Scott MacFarlane, “Strategic Thinking and Planning in a Learning Culture,” Training, March 3, 2014,

15. T. Irene Sander, Strategic Thinking and the New Science, 110-111.

16. J. Peter Scobolic, “Strategic Foresight as Dynamic Capability: A New Lens on Knightian Uncertainty,” Harvard Business School, February 27, 2020,

17. Andy Hines and Peter Bishop, Thinking about the Future, 58.

18. Tamera Carleton, William Cockayne, Antti-Jussi Tahvanainen, “Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation: A Hands-On Guide for Modeling, Designing, and Leading Your Company’s Next Radical Innovation,” Stanford University, accessed July 26, 2020,, 35.

19. Andy Hines and Peter Bishop, Thinking about the Future, 69 – 70.

20. “Conducting and environmental Scan,” Fordham University, accessed July 23, 2020,

21. Ibid.

22. Andy Hines and Peter Bishop, Thinking about the Future, 58.

23. Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Officer Professional Military Education Policy,” accessed February 27, 2020,

24. Tamera Carleton, William Cockayne, Antti-Jussi Tahvanainen, “Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation,” 3.

25. Graphic Artist credit, Hayden Froelich.

26. Brooke Mitchell, “Scenario Planning”

27. Tamera Carleton, William Cockayne, Antti-Jussi Tahvanainen, “Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation,” 114.

28. Barbara Nelson, “Environmental Scanning: Evaluations and Recommendations to Management,” University of Minnesota, June 1995.

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