Scenario planning — become the best by preparing for the worst

Image of a man and woman looking at a printout with scenario planning steps overlain on top

Scenario planning, when executed proficiently, empowers businesses to adapt to ever-changing market dynamics and outpace their competitors. This comprehensive guide will demystify the concept of scenario planning — from its inception to the technology that facilitates it — enabling you to foresee and adeptly handle unforeseen circumstances.

In this blog post, you will discover:

What is scenario planning?

Scenario planning is a strategic approach that equips leaders to plan for uncertainties and make informed business decisions. It involves identifying potential scenarios, forecasting their outcomes through trend analysis, and then formulating strategies to navigate changes in the environment, personnel, or processes.

Take the example of Shell in the 1970s. The company was grappling with the challenge of scheduling new facilities and realized that to effectively expand production, it needed to anticipate future scenarios. Shell discovered that scenario planning stimulated innovative problem-solving for future challenges.

To address this, Shell introduced Unified Planning Machinery (UPM), a system designed to plan every aspect of development. This led to a series of questions about the future of their industry. Although it involved some trial and error initially, Shell eventually developed a successful system — scenario planning. This approach not only helped them navigate uncertainties but also fostered a culture of creativity and innovation.

Types of scenario planning

Scenario planning is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It comes in various forms, each with its unique focus and methodology. Here’s a closer look at some of the most common types:

Optimistic, pessimistic, and best guess scenarios. This approach involves creating three distinct scenarios. The optimistic scenario explores the best possible outcomes for the organization, like a sudden surge in market demand. Conversely, the pessimistic scenario delves into potential pitfalls, such as a market crash. Lastly, the best guess scenario extrapolates current trends and realities into the future, providing a balanced view of potential outcomes.

Good vs. bad scenarios. This binary approach focuses on the extremes. It considers the most optimistic (good) and pessimistic (bad) scenarios, rather than the most likely outcomes. For instance, a good scenario might involve a successful product launch, while a bad scenario could entail a product recall.

Arrayed scenarios. This method is quantitative in nature. It involves selecting a specific criterion and examining a range of related alternatives. For example, a company in the energy sector might use arrayed scenarios to plan for slight, moderate, or severe fluctuations in oil prices.

Independent themed scenarios. This strategic approach focuses on individual categories of change, such as technological advancements, environmental shifts, or market trends. For instance, a tech company might create scenarios around potential breakthroughs in artificial intelligence or quantum computing.

Why is scenario planning important?

Scenario planning is a powerful tool that allows businesses to navigate the uncertain waters of the future. It’s not about predicting the future, but about exploring a multitude of possible futures. This approach enables organizations to be better prepared for whatever comes their way. Here’s why it’s so crucial:

In essence, scenario planning empowers businesses to create resilient strategies that can weather a wide array of future scenarios. It’s a proactive approach that prepares businesses for the unpredictable, helping them remain agile and adaptable in the face of change.

What are the 6 steps of the scenario planning process?

Six steps of the scenario planning process and corresponding icons

Scenario planning is a strategic process that enables organizations to anticipate potential changes and prepare for the future. It involves six key steps that help businesses navigate uncertainties and make informed decisions. Here’s a closer look at these steps:

1. Define your objective.

The first step in scenario planning is to establish a clear objective for your organization. This could be a long-term goal or a short-term target. Consider where you envision your organization in the next three to five years. This will help you align your efforts with your overall business strategy.

2. Analyze potential outcomes.

Once you’ve defined your objective, the next step is to analyze the potential outcomes of your current actions and decisions. Ensure that these outcomes align with your core goal. This step requires a careful examination of the potential impacts of your decisions on your organization’s future.

3. Identify influencing factors.

The third step involves identifying the factors that could influence your organization’s direction. This could include internal factors like organizational changes or external factors like market trends. A thorough understanding of these factors is crucial for accurate forecasting.

4. Assess conditions, assumptions, and probabilities.

The fourth step involves assessing the conditions, assumptions, and probabilities associated with each potential scenario. This involves creating four to five scenarios and determining the likelihood of each. Focus on the most probable scenarios to ensure efficient resource allocation.

5. Evaluate scenario impact.

The fifth step involves evaluating the impact of each scenario. This requires a combination of creativity, imagination, and judgment. Consider the potential impacts of each scenario and determine the necessary actions to take should they occur.

6. Develop early indicators.

The final step in scenario planning is to develop early indicators for each scenario. This is crucial for proactive management and can give your organization a competitive edge. By identifying early indicators, you can prevent potential issues before they escalate.

What are some scenario planning best practices?

Scenario planning is like planning a surprise party for your loved one. You need to prepare everything in advance, involve their friends, and ensure the entire event remains a secret. To navigate such complex situations, consider these best practices.

Incorporate both goal-specific and non-goal-specific queries during scenario planning

Scenario planning involves asking both goal-specific and non-goal-specific questions. Your team needs to define goal-specific scenarios based on your organization’s unique short-term and long-term objectives. However, non-goal-specific questions are equally crucial.

Teal and blue text bubbles of questions to incorporate during scenario planning

Here are some non-goal-specific questions to kickstart your process:

Classify scenarios as realistic, pessimistic, or aspired.

After your team has developed scenarios, categorize them as realistic, pessimistic, or aspired. This classification of "what if" scenarios can provide a holistic view to organizational leaders, rather than relying solely on data points that cannot predict the future.

Scenario planning equips businesses to brace for future uncertainties. As reality evolves, organizations can revisit their initial scenario plans and adjust their goals in response to changes. Scenario planning is flexible and can adapt to a constantly changing environment.

For example, a software company might classify a scenario involving a sudden surge in user adoption as aspired, a scenario involving a major security breach as pessimistic, and a scenario involving steady growth as realistic.

Avoid overly broad or excessively narrow scenarios.

If a scenario is too vague, it may be dismissed as unfocused or irrelevant. In such cases, you need to narrow down your focus. Conversely, if a scenario is too specific it may be deemed improbable and not taken seriously. In such situations, broaden your perspective and determine if this specific scenario is a minor variant of a larger one. Would it seem impactful and relevant to the team if presented differently?

Be thorough, but realistic.

While scenario planning requires you to anticipate the unexpected and devise plans accordingly, it also necessitates realism. Over-dramatizing and envisioning the worst-case scenarios can hinder solution brainstorming.

Teams should lean towards uncertainty and outline all feasible scenarios, even those that seem somewhat unlikely. To compile the most comprehensive and effective list, encourage group work and ensure every voice is heard.

For example, a retail company might consider a scenario involving a sudden fashion trend as unlikely but still worth planning for. To ensure a comprehensive list of scenarios, encourage diverse thinking and input from all team members.

Use scenario planning tools and software.

Strategic planning software equipped with scenario planning tools can assist teams in strategically navigating potential events that could disrupt or jeopardize the organization's wellbeing. These tools guide you toward identifying uncertainties and developing plans for every conceivable outcome.

Decision-making depends on optimal scenario planning.

Scenario planning is akin to conducting an orchestra, where each instrument plays a vital role in creating a harmonious symphony.

The significance of scenario planning in fostering effective leadership and decision-making cannot be overstated. It’s a comprehensive task that can be streamlined with the right tools and software.

Adobe Workfront is designed to simplify your scenario planning process. It enables you to create and compare scenarios, identify potential resource constraints, and chart the most effective course forward. This software bridges the gap between work and strategy, fostering better collaboration to deliver tangible business outcomes. By integrating people, data, processes, and technology, it allows you to manage the entire project lifecycle from inception to completion. Centralize and optimize your digital projects, enabling your cross-functional teams to connect, collaborate, and execute from anywhere.

Explore Adobe Workfront’s product offerings through a product tour or an overview video to learn more.