How to Build Strategy When “Set it and Forget it” Won’t Work

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This piece was written by Doug Randall and originally published on Real Leaders.

A global pandemic. Civil unrest. Economic turmoil. 2020 taught us just how susceptible we are to surprise and disruption. With as much uncertainty as we experienced last year, it was nearly impossible to complete the year without a core realization: We should not focus on predicting the future, but instead become resilient to anything that might happen.

The antidote to the uncertainty that 2021 will bring is resilience – three levels of pliability that are must-haves for navigating this year and beyond. It is useful to have any one of these, but to thrive and prosper, you need all three. Scenario planning is the process through which you and your executive team can approach resilience collectively, deliberately, and systematically.

Let’s explore the three levels of resilience since we know that “set it and forget it” will not work as a strategy, and then see how scenario planning offers immunity to the negative impacts of the unknown while creating the conditions for success.

First, there is strategic resilience. You’ve got to make decisive choices, create new options, and have flexible strategies that respond to the full range of uncertainties. To do that, you need a clear view of the context surrounding your business and industry, and a structured way to understand the forces you could potentially face. Those companies that planned for multiple scenarios for how the pandemic would unfold thrived in 2020 – the businesses that supported virtual working, the restaurants that pivoted to take-out, and the healthcare providers that turned their focus to COVID responses. Businesses that did not adjust their strategies failed as quickly as those who only cut costs without pivoting strategically. Scenario planning provides you and your leaders a framework to understand what could happen, coupled with clear strategies for how you would respond under different conditions.

The second is relational resilience. You have to operate as a team, as a partner, as a vendor, in new contexts. How do relationships change when the context shifts so dramatically? Companies that prosper figure out how to meet customers’ emerging needs and those who re-configure relationships with vendors get their supply chains filled. And it’s the companies that maintain relationship and connection with their teams that bring on new talent and maintain high-quality strategic dialogue, even while “Zooming” from their living rooms, home offices, and bedrooms. Scenario planning helps leaders cultivate strategic dialogue, forward momentum, and connection despite the ambiguity.

And finally, there is emotional resilienceAt any moment in 2020, we felt hope, spaciousness, and connection while also feeling fearful, anxious, and outraged. Those who have an emotional resilience practice and an ability to look inside are able to adapt to conditions while not being overly reactive. You and your leaders need a systematic way to de-personalize highly emotional issues so that decision making can be made clearly and cleanly, and so constant pivots don’t lead to burn-out and wasted resources.

Scenario planning is a helpful tool for cultivating all three levels of resilience. The primary use case for scenario planning is to identify futures that your company should plan for. It provides a structured framework for navigating the unknown and is an alternative to prediction and forecasting what could be, rather than what will be. Because scenario planning is done in teams, it inherently allows for building and nurturing relationships and a shared awareness through structured strategic dialogue. And finally, scenario planning gives team a sense of comfort because it allows them to grapple with the unknown, rather than bury it and pretend it’s not there. In short, scenario planning brings harmony to the age-old conflict between fighting with and fleeing from reality.

Companies that leveraged Trium’s scenario planning toolkit in 2020 were able to develop short-term strategies to navigate the global pandemic. Now is the time to turn to the longer-term strategies, structural forces, and bigger choices businesses are facing as the pandemic, civil unrest, and economic turmoil continue. As you prepare for 2021 and beyond, instead of trying to predict a single future, and instead of trying to pretend that the future will look something like it does today, why not look at the full range of possibilities? Role play and imagine what it will take to win – and then create the conditions for success.

Scenario planning fits into almost any strategic planning process and can be done quite quickly. The outcomes are revolutionary and fundamentally different than any other strategy process because it targets all three levels of resilience. Scenario planning creates the possibility for leadership teams to win no matter what conditions they face. And along the way, it helps people feel connected to one another, connected to the future, and to see new opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have.

We welcome you to reach out to explore the scenarios that are unique to your organization and industry as you prepare for the unknowns ahead.

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