We live in a turbulent time during which we are experiencing, in a visceral way, uncertainty about the future. Leaders of client organizations from all sectors are talking with me about the need to re-set and re-calibrate their decisions and plans in order to ensure that their organization is ready for what lies ahead, while recognizing that they do not know how to approach this strategic challenge, given the volatility of the situation and uncertainty about the future. In such turbulent and complex environments, the scenario planning process fosters organizational readiness, so the organization may more swiftly respond to change, pivot to an alternative plan, and collaborate with stakeholders by expanding perspectives and mind-sets.
Currently, in real time, different behaviors and practices are emerging as all of us adjust to COVID-19. We are re-thinking our responses to racism as many of us see more clearly patterns of injustice and brutality, which were hidden from our view or which we were simply unable to see or acknowledge before the recent upheaval following George Floyd’s death. Thus, we are experimenting with different ways of working and different ways of thinking about ourselves and our relationship to the world.
The reality is that the global environment has actually been volatile and complex for a long time. In the past few decades, a major event or disruption in our personal lives or in the economic or political spheres has reminded us about the uncertainty of our circumstances. Subsequently, we returned to ‘normality.’ Although we may not have been entirely aware of it, the fact is that high levels of interconnectivity and movement among and between individuals, groups, organizations, communities and societies has made prediction and control illusory. There are simply too many interactions and interrelationships among individuals and groups and between all levels of the social hierarchy to allow us to truly predict and control outcomes. At multiple points in a plan or trajectory individuals and groups may be influenced to move in a different direction, to shift perspectives and to adopt different practices. Easy access to information has redistributed power so individuals and small informal groups can challenge powerful entities. The explosion of information and knowledge has engendered innovation which has overturned and restructured entire industries, catching key players off guard. When I served on the faculty of the U.S. Army War College, working in the security environment, we were aware of this dynamic and the potential for unanticipated strategic challenges to security. As the Defense Transformation Chair, it was my mandate from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to prepare and develop senior security leaders for the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. It took several years for this awareness of networked interrelationships and their potential upsides and downsides to spread into the broader organizational consciousness. Nowadays, leaders of organizations of all sizes speak of the challenges of VUCA.
Despite the reality of complexity and turbulence, we are continuing to think and act assuming that we can predict and control. Often, implicitly, we take for granted that the future will follow linearly from the present we know to a future that will be an extension of existing patterns and trends. Also, prevailing ideas about effective leadership still reflect a bias toward the empowerment of one individual who will lead and motivate the larger group, ignoring the importance of shared, emergent and informal leadership. Indeed, business practices, especially, strategic planning practices do not yet account for the complexity of our world. These practices leave in place unexamined assumptions and project into the future from existing trends and trajectories, without accounting for complexity and emerging change. These blind-spots and limiting cognitive biases mean that the outcomes of our business and organizational processes frequently do not offer the organizational fitness or resilience required for sustained success. Leaders often sense this, but have not known how to address it.
Scenario planning is an approach to strategic thinking and planning which accounts for uncertainty and strengthens the capacity to build resilience and adaptiveness for both individuals and their organizations. Make no mistake, scenario planning is not simply envisioning best and worst case scenarios and planning around those. Scenario planning is a structured and participative approach to strategic thinking and planning that engages internal and key external stakeholders to reframe narratives about alternative and plausible futures in order to create a context for more viable planning, action and strategic decisions in the present. While the organization emerges from the process with a broader range of repertoire for timely response and greater resilience, the individuals involved in this process of inquiry, reflection, and conversation learn new ways of thinking, acting and interacting that encourage innovation, collaboration, adaptability and flexibility of mind and behavior. Thus, the scenario planning process as we use it engages participants individually and collectively to accelerate their growth and development as strategic leaders. In an environment where it is safe to question and challenge one another and entertain differences of perspective, participants have an opportunity to examine their assumptions about reality and expand existing mind-sets. Then they are able to collectively move forward with more resilience and confidence of success
Creating a psychologically safe space, an experienced facilitator invites participants to call on their intuition and to reflect and inquire, engaging many voices in order to avoid group-think, to test unexamined assumptions, to render disagreement productive in order to co-create a broader, deeper, and more robust images of the possible futures. Scenario planning requires an experienced facilitator who makes iterative design decisions based on the needs of the client, the strategic questions to be addressed, and the context. The facilitator must be attentive to issues of power and governance and possess the capacity to negotiate well through a process that is both structured and flexible to avoid the common pitfalls of this process.
There are many reasons and rationales that an organization might choose to embark on this journey, for example, designing a robust strategy for a new environment, moving to a new market, defining different options, reducing conflict or addressing dysfunctional power plays. In any situation, after the scenarios are developed, the facilitator supports the organization to rehearse them in the context of the business and organizations issues they were designed to address, in order to consider how each scenario would influence decisions in the present and to ensure that the scenarios will be applied and utilized to stimulate a testing of perceptions of the present.
It is exactly at this point or turbulence in the ‘system’ that ‘we’ can move to a different reality, a re-ordering of existing patterns and elements and bring about a transformation in understanding, approaches and patterns of behavior. Although we cannot predict or control, in anticipating the future through scenario planning, we can more effectively shape and influence the present and the future to move toward a more desirable and successful outcome.
I invite you to engage with me in a conversation about how your organization might benefit from this approach.