Scenario Planning for Pandemic Outcomes

“Significant uncertainty surrounds what the ‘new normal’ could look like for firms beyond the COVID-19 crisis. But scenario thinking can help organizations better anticipate and adapt to dramatic changes, increase agility and resilience, and turn uncertainty into advantage,” according to this Knowledge@Whatron article.

Scenario planning is a powerful tool for developing strategy, especially given the complex web of unknowns in which we find ourselves. It leverages the cognitive, creative power of narrative to imagine and respond to possible futures. The thought experiment yields critical analysis, important insights, and the ability to innovate and prepare for a variety of eventualities.

For scenario planning to be as useful as possible, entire teams should be engaged and invested. If delegated to a small group as a fringe project, the resultant lessons will have diminished impact, cautions this piece by business consultancy McKinsey. The exercise works best when the narratives around each scenario are all deeply developed. The more information and connections a scenario involves, the more instructive its consideration will be.

Scenarios should represent a spectrum of good and bad situations. You can think of them as laying over a graph in which the x and y axes represent best and worst case predictions for key factors. For example, take economic recovery (weak to strong) and social/consumer behavior (scared to confident). Scenarios in that case might occupy quadrants such as “struggling economy and consumers are staying home,” “economy is picking up but consumers are avoiding public spaces,” “economy is still low but people are eager for new consumer experiences,” and “businesses are bouncing back and consumers are venturing out again.” Planning deeply for each scenario allows you to create a playbook and to better recognize patterns on the horizon. This Forbes piece outlines a step-by-step guide for applying scenario planning to your business.

One of the most useful and most challenging aspects of scenario planning is thinking beyond your own expectations in order to plan more comprehensively. McKinsey shares this advice (summed up concisely in this infographic) for navigating the perils of bias.