Strategic or scenario planning? Which do you need when?

Someone wise once said, ‘We can be certain of two things, you will die and you will pay taxes.’ Not quite everyone does the latter it seems, but I get the point. As for the rest, Buddhists talk of Anicca or impermanence, everything is changing. Professionally we understand that well in education. We understand we need to lead and make decisions based on sometimes incomplete information and often rapidly changing contexts, but is it strategic or scenario planning we need?

According to Fulton and Scearce (2004) ‘Scenario thinking is a tool for motivating people to challenge the status quo, or get better at doing so, by asking ‘What if?’ Asking ‘What if?’ in a disciplined way allows you to rehearse the possibilities of tomorrow, and then to take action today empowered by those provocations and insights.’

Scenario planning is most useful when futures hang in the balance as the drivers which underpin current modes of operating are uncertain. This could be a potential change of funding streams, regulation, major partners or demographics critical to your business or service. The skill is not to have random ideas about possible futures but to systematically define what is most critical and most uncertain and explore possible futures around those paradigms. Sayers (2010) proposes using a set of axis to plot the paradigms for scenario creation. This ensures scenarios at opposite extremes of critical uncertainties can be explored and produces at least four possible scenarios, one in each quadrant. A hypothetical example could look like this:

Each of these scenarios has challenges, opportunities and risks which can be explored through creating possible narratives of what each future may look like for the various stakeholders involved. It can also alert us to activities we should stop to prevent us hurtling down an unplanned path. Intense thought is required if we are to rigorously challenge conscious and unconscious mind sets from where we usually speculate and judge the future. This is a risky enterprise to embark on. It brings into sharp relief our innate tendency to cling on to the familiar and resist accepting impermanence. Our aversion to risk (even hypothetical risk) is outed, along with our fear of the unknown. ‘Tough to the point of feeling impossible… but we all agree it’s taking us to where we need to be,’ a client recently fed back to me. The role of the facilitator here is not to relieve the pressure, or solve the issues. The facilitator is there to sustain the clients as they wrestle with these complex professional uncertainties alongside their inevitable personal potential loss – most especially when it feels impossible and the road map is no longer of the current landscape. Disintegration precedes creation it seems.

The purpose of scenario or ’futures work’ is ultimately to improve planning. Strategic planning begins when the decision has been made about the desired outcome or direction. We create an overall goal, agree milestones or interim targets, establish a set of actions to reach the goal. We include resources, risk management, finance, HR and a process for monitoring progress, and we’re clear about what evidence will convince us good progress is being made.

To summarise, scenario planning helps you make an informed decision, strategic planning helps you get there.