How Scenario Planning Helps You See The Many Roads Ahead

What lies ahead for your business and industry? You can’t know with 100 percent certainty—but you can think through likely scenarios and how to prepare for them so you capture opportunities and mitigate risks.

One likely major driver of your company’s success is your ability and that of your team to anticipate likely future events and develop plans for dealing with them. Of course, as recent history has demonstrated all too well, the future can be highly uncertain. There is rarely, if ever, perfect clarity as to how different factors and events will play out—or how they’ll impact your company’s future. That doesn’t mean you should be frozen. To the contrary, you need to develop a strategic vision and then plan with guaranteed uncertainty in mind. Recognizing the obstacles and limitations of predicting the future, many successful business owners we work with turn to scenario planning to help them make better choices in both the short and long terms.

Scenario Planning Defined

Scenarios are simply alternative futures. Scenario planning is a process in which you make different sets of assumptions about the future and how those different sets of assumptions are most likely to affect your company and industry. This type of planning can help you develop strategies to take advantage of opportunities that may possibly arise, as well as avoid significant possible future risks.

The process of developing scenarios is in itself very useful for many business owners. Developing scenarios can accomplish the following:

  • Identify leading indicators of industry change
  • Avoid major surprises that could hurt the company
  • Provide a way to compare different courses of action

You and your team can determine highly likely scenarios and devise strategic moves and initiatives to excel in those environments. The aim is to conceptualize multiple ways a current situation might evolve. Then, by monitoring the key factors in different scenarios, you can potentially have an early warning as to how the future will progress—and thus, what actions you need to take.

Important: Scenario analysis is not about predicting the future as much as it is about considering possible alternatives. Based on these alternatives, you can prepare yourself well by developing various strategic options to implement if needed. We think the concept and logic of scenario planning is fairly straightforward. However, the difficult aspect is developing powerful scenarios. Basically, good scenarios are narratives—stories that begin, advance and end. Generally, more complicated and extended scenario planning will incorporate twists and turns and adjustments that detail how a business environment changes in erratic ways over a period of time. Because the economic, political and social environments are becoming increasingly com-plex, we see scenario analysis getting more attention among companies (including a growing number of smaller businesses).

Simple Scenario Planning Steps

There are various different approaches to scenario planning, but they all tend to involve many of the same steps. Some approaches are modest and provide basic insights and certain directions; others are incredibly complex.
Simple scenario planning is easy to implement and is useful for gaining perspective. The following steps are often used to develop simple scenarios:

  •  Define the goals of the analytic process.
  •  Construct a list of factors and forces likely to impact the future.
  •  Put the factors and forces into categories (e.g., political, social, demographic).
    Write a description of each category.
  •  Use the categories to produce three scenarios:
    • Best case
    • Mainline
    • Worst case
  •  Produce a one- or two-page description of each of the three scenarios, and specifically how the company would be affected.
  •  Develop a list of indicators for each scenario that would help you determine whether the events predicted by that scenario are starting to play out.
  •  Monitor the indicators on a regular basis.

These steps reflect the basic approach to scenario analysis. However, they can be upgraded. More advanced scenario planning usually involves multiple people from the company and often uses outside experts (such as a facilitator). There is also a greater focus on details, from the construction of timelines to extensively fleshed-out narratives. Additionally, more than just three scenarios are usually developed and evaluated.

Scenario Planning Pitfalls

Scenario planning is a very subjective process. It fosters dialogue within a company and focuses attention on strategic considerations. However, it does not necessarily produce definitive results.
As such, there are potential problems to keep in mind when conducting scenario analyses, such as:

• Becoming paralyzed by too many possibilities and therefore taking no action at all. The aim is to come up with the most meaningful alternatives, not every conceivable alternative. Therefore, it’s important to winnow possibilities and focus on key assumptions—not all assumptions.
• Being too wedded to a current strategy when brainstorming alternatives. Playing devil’s advocate is often very useful in breaking out if you’re stuck on one way of thinking about the future.
• Confusing a likely scenario with the only possible or “right” scenario. There might be a scenario you feel is most likely to occur, but you probably still should take into account other scenarios and monitor for them as well.

Ultimately, scenario planning is a way for you to better deal with possible changes in the business environment. Your scenario analysis efforts can potentially make you better able to see changes coming so you can start figuring out how to address them as effectively as possible for your business.

From Scenarios to Strategy

Keep in mind that scenarios in and of themselves do not make your company more successful. That can occur only if you use the insights gathered from your scenario planning to develop strategic initiatives. You can use scenario planning to think through an event and “test” those strategic initiatives.

So start with this crucial first step—then be sure you follow it through in order to best pre-pare your business for whatever might be headed its way.