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Thomas's Community Connection

The basics of Scenario Planning

The chessboard of thinking and acting strategically.



Change is inevitable. It is a universal truth. No matter how much effort is spent in preventing change, there is no way to stop it. Because it is unavoidable, there are then only two options: do or do not plan for the change. Change can be good or even bad, and it affects individuals, groups, communities and whole regions. The real question is whether or not preparations have been made for potential and inevitable change. Either prepare for changes that may happen, or do not plan and let come what may.


No planning: the “Chutes and Ladders” strategy


The phrase “let come what may” often brings a sense of both whimsy and defiance, a spontaneity to let events fold out without any interference. Thinking of life as a game, this would be like playing Chutes and Ladders, where the game is played without strategizing moves. Players move spaces according to the number they spin, and then based on the space they land on either they stay put, move forward (ladder) or move backward (chutes). And finally, the only way to win or finish the game is by spinning the exact number needed to reach the last space. In other words, the strategy of this game is luck and chance. The ability to plan and prepare is not a part of this game.


In reality, this would mean people leave life up to chance and take no control for what happens. For some this can be freeing. No longer worrying about life’s many stresses leaves room to enjoy what is without worrying about what could be. However, taking a step back from “let come what may,” this mentality  creates space for potential devastation. A hands-off approach to change can easily result in the total loss of valuable belongings and vulnerable people.


Imagine a young family, made up of parents with young children, practicing a hands-off approach to change or preparations can have some benefits. Being hands-off allows children the space to be creative and explore on their own terms. At the same time, it can lead to members of the family being unprepared and vulnerable in cases of emergencies. Parents often teach their children emergency safety practices and what to do in the event of a house fire, an earthquake, or a whole host of other potential disasters. A child without this preparedness would be left in shock, not knowing how to escape the house or where to go to as a place of safety.


This is also the case with whole neighborhoods, organizations, cities and regions. Collectively, people can go about their days as normal. On normal, average days, there is no need for emergency preparedness. Risks seem low, so why bother? Unfortunately, that terrible day when a natural or manmade disaster does always eventually strike. When it does it leaves hundreds to hundreds of thousands of people vulnerable and at risk of death or total loss of their personal belongings.


From these emergency and disaster scenarios it becomes evident why having some sort of plan is needed. Being prepared with a basic plan around where to find safety and who to contact becomes obvious.


Strategic planning: the “Monopoly” strategy


Simply, being completely unprepared and without a plan is dangerous to oneself and to others. Having a plan creates better knowledge of what may occur and options on how to respond. As such, many communities and organizations have some level of emergency plan, these are simple and straightforward plans on what is important and how to move forward as a result of a specific emergency. For large communities and organizations these may be their own unique strategic plan, however for most communities and organizations this level of emergency preparedness stems from their strategic plans.


Strategic plans become the bedrock on which decisions are made. They are often created in a collaborative process between specific key stakeholders about how what is important and how they want to move in the future. However, most strategic plans become a document and vision that ultimately sits on the shelf, static, only to be occasionally referred to a handful of times. This static plan identifies basic options, goals, priorities and actions for specific foreseen and/or planned changes around the current context of the organization or community.


Returning to the imagery of a game, this is can be thought of as something similar to Monopoly. Here, the player rolls a pair of die to determine how many spaces they can move forward. There are specific rules about the direction of play and what is possible, and players follow a predetermined path of travel. A main difference between Monopoly and Chutes and Ladders is that in Monopoly each player can have a unique ultimate goal towards which they aspire and can create a basic strategy on how to get there within the limited available options. This is the same with strategic plans. Basic strategy is created to get the agency or group moving in the directional path they want to go. In Monopoly, the player has the potential of drawing a card or landing on a space of an unfortunate event or which places them in risk of being in debt to another player. Even though the player has a plan this player may lose everything they have worked towards due to an unlucky roll of the dice. Ultimately, Monopoly is a game of strategy built off of luck.


Strategic planning offers a basic level of planning. However, these alone can leave communities and organizations under-prepared for real world events. In the event of a major change, good or bad, strategic plans do not guide how to move forward, how to rebuild or how to maintain sustainability. This under-preparedness can be crimpling.


Scenario planning: the “Chessboard” strategy


Chess is often considered the game of games, requiring foreseeing possible moves several moves in advance. Yes, like Monopoly, chess is a game of strategy. However, with chess, this strategy requires several planned and thought-out scenarios for how the opponent might move and how to respond to, prepare for and even prevent or mitigate possible moves. These scenarios are all playing out at the same time for the entire length of the game.


This scenario planning requires forethought as to what is likely possible, and the strategic actions needed in order to create winning scenarios or at the very least prevent losing scenarios. This is true for large-scale change. Within communities and organizations, such chess-like strategies of scenario planning create resilience. Being prepared for what may come creates a level of security for the future while maintaining needed flexibility in order to adapt as things do change.


The main difference between strategic plans and scenario planning is that scenario planning involves the ability to foresee and adapt to countless possible risks and opportunities and prepare for them. Strategic planning is not adaptable to real world changes, nor does it incorporate possible events to the level needed to be able to bounce back from them. Like strategic planning, scenario planning is rooted in understanding the ultimate goal and vision of the community or organization; it just takes this planning much farther.


Thinking about the real world, communities are bombarded with great risks all the time. These may be environmental risks such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or wildfires, or potentially humanmade such as massive layoffs, car crashes, terrorism, violence, or accidental or intentional poisoning, each of these can devastate whole communities and regions. With scenario planning, communities can understand what changes – both risks and opportunities – are likely possible, prepare for needed responses and long-term effects, and even adapt plans as needed as lived experience changes.


Ultimately it is not possible to plan for everything. There will always be things that will be unknown, and their effects will also be unknown. But for the viability of organizations and the safety of communities and individuals, planning for known possible change is critical. Without this level of planning leads to failing organizations, destroyed communities and loss of life.


Strategic planning processes are the most common form of future planning for organizations and communities; however, they are limited. They do not have space to be adaptable. The only way to adapt a strategic plan is completely redoing a strategic planning process. Scenario planning creates possible plausible scenarios that organizations and communities may likely experience. These scenarios identify places of weakness and strengths and options on how to move forward to ultimately maintain and live their goals and vision.


Preparing for life’s changes like a chessboard can seem daunting, and so it may seem easier to go with the flow and let come what may. However, this unpreparedness is dangerous. On an individual level, scenario planning takes practice and work. Incorporating perspectives of others creates better awareness of what risks and opportunities can exists or occur. Communities and organizations that practice scenario planning allow change to transform them, becoming more sustainable and vital. Preparing for possible changes and having the flexibility to adapt and respond accordingly to future changes makes scenario planning the chessboard of thinking and acting strategically.

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