Of course, a futurist working for an oil company would flesh out each scenario in detail. Vivid scenarios are valuable because thinking about them helps open executives' brains to a range of possibilities, some disturbing, some exciting. They also provide early warning signals that help the company see early on which scenario is becoming reality. After this particular scenario exercise, executives would likely begin scanning the news for reports on hydrogen fuel and organized crime in Russia. That attentiveness might allow the oil company to see a little farther into the future than its competitors.

While futurists agree that scenarios work, they don't approach scenario-making the same way. Some say we should ponder four competing scenarios at most, because beyond that, we're overwhelmed with possibilities. Shostak advises creating scenarios that cover the probable future (the one smart punters bet on), a possible future (a dark horse entry), the preferable future (one we want, even if it isn't likely), and the preventable future ("the future we don't want," says Shostak).

But other futurists offer different mixes. Jay Arthur, a Denver futurist, says it's always a solid tactic to include a worst-case future. "That's a fast way to break out of mental ruts," he explains.

And then there's the question of who should be involved in creating scenarios in the first place. Washington, D.C., futurist John Mahaffie tells his clients to bring in other stakeholders - customers and vendors, for example - when contemplating the future, because that's a way to stretch beyond company clichés.

One thing futurists do agree on: It's not the possibilities that are the point, it's how you think about them. They scoff at the idea of taking any scenario as gospel. Futurism's chief value isn't necessarily that it forecasts tomorrow, says Joe Coates, a leading business futurist, but that it makes people aware of their underlying assumptions.