Scenario Planning

Nonprofit Scenario Planning as a Facilitation Tool

I originally wrote this post back in 2009 and have since written much on the topic of facilitation and strategic planning.  This post continues to hold up as a useful review.

This week I have been putting together a workshop on the role of scenarios as a tool in strategic planning. The request comes out of my work with another consultant on a scenario planning exercise that we recently coordinated as part of a business planning process.  The use of scenarios as a business planning tool can be traced back several decades and was popularized with couple of key articles by Pierre Wack that appeared in two Harvard Business Review articles back in the mid 80’s.  There are well developed methodologies for the creation of scenarios, including Future Search and Scenario Thinking.  In between these two methods are likely dozens of permutations of the scenario planning that practitioners have made up along the way.  While I believe that facilitating a scenario planning exercise can easily be done after some modest self-study, for me, the power of scenarios came alive after going through a number of scenario exercises both as a participant as well as a facilitator.  In this post I would like to describe several core principles of scenario planning that have come through my experiences using this planning methodology.

1.  Scenario Planning is a Means and not an End: Scenarios, in essence, tell stories based on the near term certainties in the context of critical uncertainties.  Stories, however, cannot be confused with strategy.  I once was discussing with an executive director of an agency who called to inquire about strategic planning and suggested that she wanted to use scenario planning as the framework for the strategic plan.  She said something like, “I think what this agency needs is not the traditional strategic plan but a pithy and vivid scenario that conveys who we are and where we are going.”  While a strategic plan can be organized around a vivid scenario, scenarios alone cannot address the complexity of strategy.  I am often reminded of the truism that “a good slogan can stop progress for fifty years” and the risk of creating vivid scenarios is that the story replaces the strategy. Strategy and not story is what matters.

2. The Future is likely more Complicated than a Single Scenario: One of the criticisms of scenario planning is that the technique of using a two-by-two matrix to create a scenario produces a truncated view of the plausible future.  Except in rare instances an organizations future will be influenced by more than two certainties/uncertainties.  Rather than a one dimensional matrix the future is likely resembles a Rubik’s cube. In creating scenarios, one needs to build time into the process to twist and turn scenarios until there is alignment across several dimensions.

3. Scenario Planning Contains a Germinal Seed of Change:  Storytelling seems to be the latest consulting rage.  While I remain skeptical of the power of story in creating an organizational sea change, I believe that one the roles of a good scenario is that it begins to influence the culture of an organization moving it towards change.  New words, images, metaphors and stories that emerge from scenarios can be a powerful support in the development of a change strategy or strategic plan.

4. Scenarios Reflect Aspirations:  The reality is that despite the apparent objectivity of a scenario planning exercise, scenarios tend to gravitate towards the group bias and the story typically reflects the aspirational direction of the collective organization.  This is not a bad thing as long as the scenario is future-oriented, plausible and action-oriented.  In fact, I would suggest that the power of scenarios is that they are constructivist by nature.  A group working together to bring a scenario into existence begins the work of creation. Once created, the strategies and actions that support movement towards the realization of the scenario becomes a self-fulfilling direction. Again, as long as the scenario is based on informed decision-making and not simply a reflection of magical thinking, scenarios can contribute significantly to a strategic planning process by focusing the aspirations around a shared story about where the organization wants to be.

5. Scenario Planning is part of a Process and not the Event:  A final principle is related to the concept of the “means and not the end” and underscores the point. Like other planning processes, there is a temptation to let the scenario planning event become the definitive moment in time.  We need to guard against the thinking that “we did a scenario planning process last year.” The power of scenario planning is in the actions that follow the planning process.  The stories and scenario only has power as it comes to life in action.  Scenario planning is really the process of implementing change, achieving milestones and growth.

Considering these principles, a conclusion we can draw is that building scenarios is more art than science and while it engages the head, scenarios often more about passion, vision and heart.  As a result, scenario planning is a useful tool for nonprofit leaders that works best where there is leadership, openness to change, uncertainty future, and the time to process the uncertainty. Conversely, if the way forward is predetermined or an organization is in the midst of a crisis or otherwise does not have the capacity to absorb long-term change, scenario planning will be less helpful.  Scenario planning is about moving confidently towards tomorrow and towards the aspiration of what an organization wants to become. In the hands of a skilled facilitator this process can be a meaningful way to engage stakeholders in a process of thoughtful change that strengthens the strategic intent of an organization. As we plan, manage and grow through these challenging times the tool of scenario planning can serve as a useful tool in the facilitation toolbox.

~ Mark

Photo Credit: Steve Buissinne

References:  What If: The art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.

1 Comment

  1. Great post. I would also like to add that strategic planning isn’t complete without including a review of the possible scenarios of the key people in your organization and key external organizations. For example, who’s going to resist change, who’s going to embrace working strategically, and what’s important to the people in power? Considering the “people” element will help leadership when implementing the strategic plan.
    Tonya Welch

Comments are closed.