The case for Agile Scenario Planning
Since the onset of the pandemic, any set of scenario plans that did not include a global pandemic or an analog, instantly became useless. The black swan of the pandemic disrupted assumptions across the board. It made almost everything uncertain.
Early on in the pandemic, a few forecasters attempted to find ways to see a post-pandemic future, but for me, the variables outstripped even the most experienced scenario planner. It wasn’t just uncertainty of the extent of the pandemic, the vaccine timeline, or the economic impact of the disruption—underlying factors added to the uncertainty.
George Floyd’s death precipitated civil unrest. The presidential election and the unprecedented challenge to the election results, including an attack on the U.S. Capital and its lawmakers continue to sow uncertainty about the stability and sustainability of American Democracy.
Civil libertarians on the right often assert freedom as the basis for their refusal to wear masks or to not receive vaccinations. The majority seeks to protect the health of their neighbors, co-workers, and loved ones even if that results in inconvenience or minor annoyance. This dichotomy reflects underlying global schisms that force scenario planning to confront the future health and functionality of modern democracies.
Shortages of toilet paper, integrated circuits, lumber, chicken wings, and a wide variety of other commodities and manufactured goods continue, as different strains of COVID, as well as diverse governmental responses, affect local economies—often with global implications. And work and school moved home. Sometimes more than once.
On the 2021 environmental front, nature asserted droughts so severe that reservoirs run too low to serve up their remaining water or to produce hydroelectric power. Water needs to be airlifted to wild animals. Heat domes drive blistering temperatures that kill hundreds in normally temperate zones like Portland and Seattle. In Greenland heat melted the snowpack so rapidly that it unleashed a torrent that could cover Florida in 2-inches of water. Unprecedented downpours flood unprepared urban areas, wash down desert gullies and destroy stretches of the recently built, and controversial U.S. border wall. And in Greeland again, warm weather resulted in rain at 10,551 feet on August 14, 2021, forever changing the consistency of the ice. These recent calamities call into question the timeline of climate scientists.
And as I write this, the 20-year war in Afghanistan collapsed into chaos after a poorly executed American withdrawal and the near-overnight sweep of the Taliban back into power. Terrorism, from groups in the Middle East, which the global effort kept at bay partially through the occupation of Afghanistan, now re-emerges as a legitimate concern over the planning horizon. Not only do we need to worry about catching COVID on a plane, but we must also once again worry if the plane will be used as a weapon.
The list appears daunting. In August 2021, The Atlantic asked a poignant question in its article All These Simultaneous Disasters Are Messing With Our Brains: “When does our empathy run out?” This question identifies a major uncertainty within the social sphere. One that should appear in all current scenario sets.
Scenarios only retain value if they help organizations think about the future more robustly, collectively, and deeply. The current instability and broad range of emergent uncertainties converging make regular engagement with them critical.
Some may argue that rapidly changing inputs results in untrustworthy forecasts. The scenario planning process has proven time and again to help organizations better navigate the future. That we must do so in shorter timeframes does not nullify the process’s value—what it does do is suggest that scenario planning requires adjustments to retain its underlying value.
Scenarios help challenge assumptions, drive innovation—and identify context. None of scenario planning’s properties diminishes when the planning horizon shortens. More likely, individuals and organizations will find themselves more engaged when they actively confront uncertainty, than if they just let the future play out and react.
Traditional scenario planning, unfortunately, does not help when uncertainties heap upon uncertainties. Some, regardless of the change, resist out of principle. Those who have been through the scenario planning process obtain some immunity from the overt desire to too quickly return to a status quo, or attempt too early to forecast what’s next. Scenario planning, if nothing else, helps its participants become more adaptive thinkers.
And today we all need to be adaptive thinkers. I have always seen the future as volatile. I don’t believe in locked-in features of the future—and driving forces always struck me as uncertainties that planners imbued with unnatural attributes. Given that no data exists about the future, and that many uncertainties assert pressure on each other, nothing avoids sculpting from associated pressures.
Rejecting lock-in and driving forces runs counter to traditional scenario planning that crafts stories about the future a decade or two out. and may not change even when some of the narrative components behave differently than forecasted. Some organizations invest in scenarios occasionally because of the supposed staying power of the product.
Those who live with scenarios, make them part of the strategic dialog, know differently. Even if subtle, in practice scenarios flow. They expand and contract. Bright flares of fact burst over them enlightening flaws. Undercurrents of uncaptured factors undermine them. Only those who pay close attention, casting wide nets and sifting diligently through their catch, adequately participate in the future’s unfolding.
We live in a world of emergent uncertainties. Traditional scenario planning simply does not move fast enough.
Scenario planning needs to take a page from information technology and adopt an Agile Development approach. While Agile Development focuses on relatively near-term uncertainties about how software can and should work, and what consumers of software may or may not want—Agile Scenario Planning will allow teams to regularly revisit assumptions, incorporate emergent properties, and identify more quickly when significant changes in context should result in refreshed, rewritten, or completely new scenarios.
What to do when the future is too volatile to plan for? Agile Scenario Planning in Practice
The scenario planning process appears relatively linear when viewed as a presentation slide. Many of the tasks, however, repeat, some acquiring new data, others refining existing data, still, others encouraging imagination and creativity that results in narratives, implications, and recommended actions. Scenario planning lends itself easily to Agile and Scrum.
Following the planning process above, the initial Agile sprints would include:
- Interviews (could be multiple sprints based on divisions, locations, or other factors)
- Focal question agreement
- Sprints for uncertainties
- Define candidate matrices
- Develop candidate matrix stories
- Converge on a matrix
- Write scenario narratives (likely for our more sprints)
Typical scenario planning projects conclude with the following tasks.
- Identify implications
- Identify actions
- Identify contingencies
- Define early indicators
While these steps always end up explicitly stated in a scenario project plan as separate activities, and often appear on a workshop agenda with a slot and time allocation, in practice, the later in the process an item falls, the less likely it will garner the same intellectual vigor from participants as do earlier stages of the process.
Sprints allow for more separation in time, and more focus on individual needs of the deliverable. Rather than, for instance, trying to identify the actions the organization needs to take based on implications in the last 30 minutes of a session while everyone is looking at the clock—a sprint reconvenes the team to look just at actions and nothing else.
But the real benefit of Agile Scenario Planning comes as practitioners monitor the unfolding future. Scenario plans usually call this phase “the early warning system.” Few organizations commit to an early warning system, even fewer make the necessary investments to maintain one. Agile techniques augment early warning systems.
Sprints allow for the rapid revisiting of uncertainties and their values, leading to more responsive, and adaptive scenarios—scenarios able to more rapidly reflect emergent facts, technologies, legislation, and other factors. Because they can be executed periodically, they may not require the same level of investment as traditional early warning systems, but they still require active monitoring to diligently watch the future unfolder.
Diligently watching the future unfold
The following diagram outlines Agile Methodology and a Scrum Process for Agile Scenario Planning.
The early warning system phase of scenario planning might be called long scenarios. Organizations that depend on scenarios as strategic tools continually engage with them, formally and informally. Scenarios become part of their strategic dialog.
Formal reviews usually revisit existing scenarios. If the team discovers major divergence from the scenario vectors that threaten the credibility and usefulness, they will rework them. With high volatility, it is imperative that all organizations monitor core scenario uncertainties and regularly.
The following three bullets outline the triggers for reviewing uncertainties or the entire scenario set.
- The early warning system seeks to identify in which direction the future seems to be unfolding. This perception of direction often changes multiple times over the scenario planning horizon. Its most important contribution comes from keeping contingencies top-of-mind for leadership.
- Monitoring the information landscape can identify emergent uncertainties that should be incorporated into the scenario narratives. Emergent uncertainties need to be evaluated if they are or might become significant enough to displace the major drivers that form the axes of the scenario matrix. If they don’t rise to that level, the uncertainties should be incorporate into the narratives with appropriate values to reflect the narratives in each quadrant.
- The collapse into certainty occurs when an uncertainty value becomes known. Major uncertainties can invalidate the scenarios completely. As noted above, given the rapidly unfolding uncertainties of this decade, scenarios may need to be rewritten more often than they have in the past.
The scenario uncertainties, matrix, and narratives serve as the project backlog. They act as the context for what to monitor. The sprints may result in any or all of them being changed.
During times of high volatility, the early warning system may collect evidence that determines one or more uncertainties will arrive at a stable value. Stable values switch the uncertainties to a known state.
Planners must then excise the new certainties from scenarios—and the subsequent narratives revised to reflect new logics in which that value is known. The recent withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan offers an example of an uncertainty that now has a known value.
Scenarios with other values for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will require revision to reflect emergent uncertainties—but because the threat of terrorism remains an uncertainty on its own, Afghanistan may be relegated to a regional set of uncertainties, unlikely, for instance, to further affect the technology, capabilities, or mindset of the U.S. military.
Scenario planning advocates not just for imagining the future, but for diligence in seeing how well our imaginations forecasted and anticipated the future.
Using Agile Development approaches, with sprints as a framework, the reviews of emergent disruptions to, or reinforcements of, the scenario assumptions could loop through analytical sprints that would then determine the nature of any additional work required.
Agile Scenario Planning: Actively engaging the future
As many organizations know, from COVID outbreaks to civil unrest to wildfires, uncertainties now protrude into the present and force immediate action. This rapid pace of strategic challenge translates into a higher need for rapid tactical responses—for some organizations it may change the relationship between strategy and tactics.
The strategic context now shifts so quickly that a persistent set of scenarios that tease a decade’s work of insights is no longer possible. Leaders may still strive for long planning horizons, but the details become fuzzier nearer and sooner. For some, that may defeat the purpose of scenario planning. For me, it keeps it relevant.
If uncertainty continues to thrive, we will need to recognize the reality that even the best forecasting can’t see past the wall of uncertainty. Organizations will need to shore up long-term plans with more explicit contingencies. And scenarios will remain the best tools for exploring even the swiftest churns, spurring people to not only deal with reality more actively but to discover creative ways to shape it.
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