How We Are Using Scenario Planning to Navigate COVID-19

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About six weeks ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about the scenarios that we as a company might be navigating later in the year and in the coming years. Back then (which seems like forever ago), we were in the midst of more immediate reactions to the current pandemic, but over the last few weeks, we have had a chance to start pulling scenario planning into our regular strategic planning sessions, and it has been empowering.

I thought I’d share what we have been doing in case it is helpful to others wanting to undertake similar efforts. I also wrote a recent blog on why I think scenario planning is useful right now if you want a primer before reading about our specific experience with it.

Step 0: We Got Our House in Order

At Thought Ensemble, like at most companies, our initial response to Covid-19 centered primarily around business continuity planning and risk mitigation. For us, this was largely about getting all of our people supported while working fully remotely. We postponed several investments intended to drive significant growth in 2020 and agreed to slow down our plan to aggressively hire until we had more visibility into what’s ahead. We also dove into the CARES act and FFCRA and took actions as needed.

Meanwhile, our leadership team held internal account planning sessions for each of our clients. We looked individually at how they had been impacted and how we expected them to be impacted going forward. We agreed to what we needed to do to continue to support them through their existing challenges, as well as what we could do to help them through their new ones.

Only then were we ready to move into the more strategic conversations around scenario planning. In some ways, having the time and space to think strategically felt like a bit of a luxury as we saw some businesses shutting down or laying off large numbers of employees. But we knew we needed to start thinking bigger in order to not only weather the crisis but to emerge from it stronger.

Step 1: A Small Group Defined the Scenarios

To begin, a small group of us determined the scenarios (alternative futures) we thought were most useful to discuss. We agreed we had two key uncertainties that would most impact our business: (1) the severity of the pandemic and (2) the corresponding economic reaction.

We turned these uncertainties into a 2×2 matrix with four scenarios and then thought about each of the scenarios created by the extremes. While we haven’t lived through a pandemic before, we did start our company in the midst of a recession, so we were able to bring some experience into our thinking. Using some external research (here’s my favorite, which I also mentioned in my last blog) as well as our own analysis, we developed short overviews of each of the four scenarios.

Here’s our high-level picture. I won’t go through all the details here, but I’m happy to share more if you reach out to me. One note: the ambiguity on the y-axis, the economic axis, still exists, but as time passes, it is moving to the more extreme end. We updated this axis once before our session and discussed it again during the session, but the scenarios still worked.

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Step 2: A Big Group Brainstormed on the Implications of the Scenarios

Once we got the basic scenarios outlined, we pulled together a strategic planning session with a broader group. We wanted to bring more ideas and perspectives into the conversation, so we invited all of our Managers and Senior Managers, in addition to our Principals and Partners, to participate. Of course, we were doing this virtually, so we used a virtual brainstorming tool called Mentimeter to support the conversation. For each of the scenarios, we first presented the overview of the scenario and then we asked a few questions:

  1.   How will our clients and prospects be impacted?
  2.   Which of our current capabilities and services could we offer to help?
  3.   What new capabilities and services would we want to be able to offer?

We used Mentimeter to gather ideas – like sticky notes on a wall – and then we identified and discussed the themes we saw in response to each of the questions. We also raised and further discussed some of the interesting new service ideas.

At one point, as we were in the middle of the most extreme scenario – the recurring pandemic with a full recession/depression – someone posted a response into the brainstorming tool that said, “This is really depressing…” We had a little laugh and bonded as a team; we agreed that, while the conversation is difficult, it is better to be thinking about it early and preparing to take action.

Through the conversation, we identified services we already provide that we should highlight to our clients, new services that we may want to focus on building, industries we should consider targeting (and not the ones I was expecting!), and some other ah-has that I did not expect at all.

One other note – that session was only ninety minutes long. Through the prep work we did, and the use of the virtual tool, we were able to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.

Step 3: Our Leadership Team Used the Brainstorming to Inform Strategic Planning

Next, we conducted our quarterly leadership meeting (virtually, for the first time). As we always do, we took a fresh look at our vision, made tweaks as needed, and established our next set of quarterly rocks. This time though, thanks to our scenario planning, we were able to bring in a broader view of the possible futures.

As we reviewed our core values, our passion, our niche, our differentiators, our target market, and our overall vision, we had some good discussion and ultimately agreed that we believe our core business has significant value in any of the new scenarios.

The biggest conversation we had was related to our services. We saw several opportunities to expand into some adjacent services to support these COVID-19 scenarios, but we saw so many more opportunities to apply our current services in different ways, that we agreed we need to double down on the things we already do really well. For example, within our business and technology strategy offering, we can promote our ability to develop strategy in an agile way, using virtual tools to support strategic planning. Within our project management service offering, we can share tools and techniques we use that support remote work. Within our change management offering, we can share how to help employees through significant shifts in strategy and ways of working.

Walking away from these conversations, our vision didn’t really change that much. However, we did get very clear on the work we need to do in the coming weeks to further develop our services in order to support our clients in a COVID-19 world. So, was it worth the effort? I wholeheartedly believe it was. Aligning around what we want to maintain, and what we want to change, helps us confidently move forward – and we must always be moving forward. It also helped engage our extended leadership team in an ongoing conversation and encourage ideas on how we pivot.

This work will continue for us. It will continue through the coming weeks and months as we further develop and market our service offerings. As we complete that work, we may move more into adjacent services. And we will likely bring back this kind of thinking in our next quarterly planning session as we continue to evaluate how to respond.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, the above experiences provide you with a couple of ideas if you are considering doing scenario planning at your company. Of course, many companies will have even more significant pivots than us, but whatever the outcome, whether a small pivot or a big one, this kind of thinking is important to do now. To confidently get your team into action, it helps to start by thinking big and aligning on the implications of various uncertainties.

As I said in my last blog on this topic, I absolutely love scenario planning, so if you have any questions, thoughts, or just need a resource to bounce ideas off of, feel free to reach out!

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