How can we plan when the future is so uncertain?

Any plans we make now will be obsolete in a few months time as things change so much.

I’ve noticed this type of comment reflected back to me more and more over the recent years.

It seems an impossible task to plan in an inherently uncertain world, but it can be done.  We have developed several ways of tackling this problem here is one approach that works well.

Every organisation faces challenges or issues.  So start by getting the key players in a room together to explore what the problems are.   Problems are uncomfortable and good leadership teams are very good at problem solving.

This strength often is a source of weakness in the organisation.  If a group of people move to problem solving too quickly, they miss things that can trip them up later.  A good facilitator can help the group stay out of their comfort zone just that little bit longer to surface the things they might have missed.  External facilitators are generally better at this than the organisation’s own people.

Starting this exploration is the hardest bit.  Over the years the best way I’ve found is to get everyone to start sharing their understanding of what will probably happen if nothing changes.

Taking this approach does two things:

Firstly, it establishes a motivation for doing this work.  I’m usually brought in to help a group understand something that needs to change for the better.  The no-change view is comfortable in the short term but rather undesirable in the longer term and everyone needs to be at the same level of awareness of this.

Secondly it paves the way to look for other options for the future and this becomes the doorway to open up a scenario analysis of possible futures.

Once the group has thought through a few alternative scenarios for the future, you’ll find that they’ll start to run out of steam.  You can spot this as the discussions focus more on detail and short term rather than bigger picture and long term.

The next stage helps your audience by working with them to sequence some of the scenarios.  I have found that flowcharting the possible futures flushes out the sequencing and shows where key decision points will be.

 

Laying out the high level plan in this pictorial form shows everyone the consequence of taking various decisions at different times.

This helps provide some certainty while retaining the ability of the organisation to adapt and flex to changing circumstances.

A high-risk option can transform into a lower risk one if the business environment changes in a favourable way.  This helps motivate everyone involved to constantly monitor the implementation of the plans and react to the emerging reality in the most appropriate way.

At the time of writing several organisations are using this process in their emergent strategies.

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