What-If Scenarios

What-if scenarios can be implemented in strategic planning to help you understand the entire scope of a situation, clearly lay out the parts and steps, establish a timeline, and consider which tasks or goals to complete before others. This article will define what-if scenarios, explain how to use them and when to implement them during the organizational strategic planning process, and provide examples of how to begin.

Take the Scenario Planner demo

What are what-if scenarios?

In scenario planning, a what-if scenario provides a way to consider the effects on a plan, project, or timeline if variability in factors exists. Instead of assuming each part of the process will adhere to some ideal, it involves examining the outcomes if certain things take more or less time, require more or less funding, result in unintended consequences, and so on.

In essence, a what-if scenario amounts to asking, “What if …?” for each major decision or aspect associated with the developing plan. For example:

Then, as you develop your organizational plan, you can incorporate contingencies and plan for all possible changes that might occur. This doesn’t just apply to organizational planning, however. What-if scenarios can apply to project management, financial calculations and decisions, and other situations in which you need strategic planning.

When to start thinking about what-if scenarios.

You can pause to consider what-if scenarios at any point. Perhaps the best time, however, is at the beginning of any major decision-making process or upon hitting certain milestones.

At the beginning.

It’s a good idea to start thinking about what-if scenarios at the beginning of any strategic planning. This allows you to generate a spectrum of possible outcomes and better gauge what to expect moving forward.

Throughout or at specific milestones.

As a project or situation progresses, variables emerge that you may not have foreseen during the initial planning phase. Because of this, it makes sense to revisit any strategic plan periodically and adjust your what-if scenarios as needed.

Benefits of using what-if scenarios in strategic planning.

There are many benefits to using what-if scenarios. Here are some of the general benefits and how they might help in the process of project management and financial planning.

General benefits.

Considering what-if scenarios increases your ability to make and meet deadlines and goals and navigate change as it happens. It also puts you in a position to make informed decisions and decreases uncertainty. This can lead to better efficiency, productivity, and organization in the face of an evolving landscape.

Project management benefits.

Project management can quickly become complicated, especially for a large-scale project with multiple moving parts. It’s often useful to use project management tools to visualize the scope and organize tasks according to a timeline. Using what-if scenarios in project management allows you to have a timeline for every potential progression. This aids in your ability to visualize the project with all possible contingencies, providing you with a framework that offers multiple pathways to your desired result, regardless of the twists and turns along the way.

Financial planning benefits.

In situations of financial planning or budgeting, using what-if scenarios allows you to determine budgetary requirements for best- and worst-case scenarios or other changes. You’ll have a greater ability to prepare and distribute resources, with fewer unwelcome surprises. It also allows you to determine final budgets for a number of strategies.

What makes good what-if scenarios?

When exploring what-if scenarios, the key is to ask as many “what if...?” questions as possible to guide your planning. A certain amount of creativity is required to imagine multiple variations in a strategic planning situation.

Include worst-case and best-case.

Consider all potential scenarios. This includes not only what-ifs that correspond to worst-case scenarios but also ones that correspond to best-case scenarios—and everything in between.

Involve collaborators.

Consider including more than one collaborator when creating these what-if scenarios. It’s also best to include collaborators with experience in each part of the strategic plan, because they’ll have more insights to draw from.

Along those same lines, always make sure to revisit previous business cycles or projects for a better idea of what could happen along the way.

Remain objective.

It’s important to be as objective as you can when estimating the consequences of each what-if scenario. In other words, don’t let your personal biases or hopes about a scenario influence what you think might happen. Instead, try to stick to the most likely outcomes and follow an evidence-based approach.

Examples and platforms.

Implementing a what-if scenario analysis doesn’t have to be cumbersome or time-consuming. There are a variety of platforms available that allow you to input variations and receive the projected results automatically.

Some work management platforms, such as Workfront Scenario Planner, allow you to create and compare different scenarios. Microsoft Excel also has features that let you create a what-if scenario analysis.

Excel has three main tools for performing a what-if analysis:

Utilizing these kinds of platforms can make the process much simpler and allow you to consider various scenarios as your plan progresses.

What-if scenarios lead to more effective strategic planning.

Strategic planning helps decision-makers identify multiple outcomes and impacts. What-if scenarios can help you feel more confident about your final strategy and imagine not just one but a variety of possibilities.