How do you plan in a world that is so uncertain? How do you prepare when so many different futures could emerge? The experience of the last few years has made it clear that just expecting a “business as usual” future is a fantasy.
You could give up on the idea of planning altogether and instead focus on improving your capability to react, your resilience. We discussed this in a Working Paper. We worked recently with one client where the Chair asked the CEO to come up with a plan of how to cope with a 25% fall in revenues – not from any specific risk, but just as a defence against random threats.
Improving resilience is fine, but not planning at all is just abandoning yourself to outrageous fortune and the sea of troubles. Stakeholders tend to expect some kind of plan. And not to have one is throwing away things that we do know about the future.
There are major long-term trends we can identify – we covered these Drivers of Change in a series of blogsduring 2022. We may not know exactly how quickly these trends will develop, or exactly in what direction, but they do give some insight into the possible shape of the future. Technology Readiness Levels enable us to put – estimated – bounds on when new technology could have an impact.
When there is a high degree of uncertainty, the best thing to do is consider the “what-ifs”. You can develop these simply by brainstorming a list of risks and opportunities, by looking at a base case plus/minus 10% or by more structured scenario analysis methods such as a scenario cross. But the point is to recognise that there a number of quite different possible futures that could come about, and to think through what each means for you.
For each of these possible futures you can develop a plan. And you can test how robust those plans are by seeing how well they work in other futures. We call this approach “wind-tunnelling”. (The generic example below is based on a scenario cross method, but the same principle applies however you generated your futures).
Policies or plans that work well in all scenarios should be put into a base case plan. Risks and opportunities that appear in each should also be addressed in a base case. The rest of the base case plan should be the set of policies suitable to the scenario in which you find yourself today. The other policies can then be worked up into contingency plans.
This is the basis of an Adaptive Plan – a base case and a set of contingency plans. To put them together, you need to identify triggers or key developments which indicate whether one of the alternative futures is starting to come about. By putting in place an ongoing monitoring function that looks specifically for these triggers you add a dynamic element to your planning.
It is quite likely that the future that is emerging is not exactly like the scenario you envisaged. So when dusting off the contingency plan it is important to review it first rather than just blindly implementing it.
An Adaptive Plan is a practical and manageable tool that helps you respond rapidly to emerging events and is a useful way of building futures thinking into your organisation’s process.
That futures orientation is what we do (all of the examples I’ve included here are from actual work with clients) – because it is one thing to understand what the future may be, but another to prepare for it, and another again to understand what to do when it happens. All of those elements are key parts of a fully formed futures practice – which is where we come in. Our tagline reads “robust decisions in uncertain times” –being to adapt and flex to those uncertainties makes an organisation, and its decision making, more robust. We’d be happy to show you how.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
Achieve more by understanding what the future may bring. We bring skills developed over thirty years of international and national projects to create actionable, transformative strategy. Futures, foresight and scenario planning to make robust decisions in uncertain times. Find out more at www.samiconsulting.co.uk