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Scenario Planning: The Sky is Falling, What do We Do?

Ever feel like you could be saying this in 2021? As much as we joke about the Dumpster Fire that is 2020, will 2021 really be that much better? Could it possibly get worse? Could this ‘new reality of constant unknowing’ be the reality for the foreseeable future?

Asking these questions of ourselves is one thing, asking them as a leader of an A/E/C company is another. The exploration of these ‘what ifs’ is called Scenario Planning. It was a concept pioneered in World War II by the US Airforce and was brought into a business planning context by Shell Oil during the Oil Embargo of the 1970s.

For companies, it works a lot like strategic planning in that you want to begin with a strong understanding of the current reality in which your company operates – finances, marketing and business development, human resources, operations, technology. It’s also helpful to get employee, leadership, and client perspectives on where you are and where you want to be. The last piece, and this is critical, is reliable economic forecasting. I know, I know, nothing is reliable these days even if there are companies that have done forecasts through multiple recessions for years. There are reports from local universities and real estate groups, and often SMPS hosts economic forecast events with panels of experts. In these times, there are numerous economic forecasting resources.

All this data comes together, is analyzed, and is compiled into a succinct report that tells the Scenario Planning team where the company (and the market) is at that moment.

Let’s talk about that Scenario Planning team. This stuff is not for everybody. It takes a mix of creatives, skeptics, pragmatists, and glass-half-full thinkers. It is also not for the masses. Scenario Planning is a leadership exercise – in part because some of the stuff that needs to be discussed can be very unsettling, especially in planning for worst case scenarios. The team must abide by Vegas rules and keep the conversation confidential.

In a typical Scenario Planning session, you want to explore the good, no change, and bad scenarios over a shorter length of time – in the next 12-18 months, as opposed to three-to-five years for traditional strategic planning. Defining the timeframe helps the team understand that this is not Long-term Strategic Planning where you might set the overall direction for the company, develop some lofty BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals), and talk about things like ownership transitions or re-evaluating core values. Scenario Planning is short-term, crisis (or success) planning. The scenarios are as important as the time frame. While good, no change, and bad are the typical scenarios; you might work in a very upbeat company where an ‘awesome’ scenario is viable. You also might work in a company with a lot of issues and create an ‘ultimate doom’ scenario, but I hope not. Even in the worst of times, things bounce back – trust me, I worked for a firm with a large land development arm in Phoenix in 2008. I, along with many of you, have seen the ugly scenario unfold.

Exploring the scenarios involves recognizing what the external world and the company will look like in each. Externally, we can ask questions about our markets and clients. We can ask about the GDP (spell out, interest rates, and inflation), and we can think about our competitors and what they might be up to. Internally, you might ask questions like, what will our billings and accounts receivables look like? How will marketing and business development react? What will our staff composition be? How will we get our work done?

From each scenario discussion should come a prioritized list of goals and actions. We like to set SMART goals – strategic, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timebound. Often, goals will arise that need to be handled regardless of the scenario. These are immediate actions and need to be prioritized appropriately. The other goals fold into plans that are carried out when and if a particular scenario occurs.

We find that leaders that do scenario planning walk away with a better sense of readiness. Sometimes, simply having met and jotted down some big picture actions is enough to give them confidence to rise to the occasion, whatever it might be. And honestly, confidence is 90-percent of leadership.

So, uncertainty be damned. We can be prepared by being prepared for anything. Need help with this sort of thing? There are a lot of excellent business consultants that can facilitate the meeting and keep your team on track. Outside resources can keep the team focused, out of the weeds, and objective. Scenario Planning can also be the kind of experience that adds value to a good marketing or business development manager’s standing. In uncertain times, we can always up our cred. Step up, plan ahead, and stay safe.


Frank Lippert, FSMPS, CPSM, is the founder/partner of Go Strategies, LLC. (www.go-strategies.com) He provides strategic pursuit planning, strategic market capture planning, and the functional seller/doer training to clients throughout the US. Frank is all about helping teams work more effectively and more efficiently with processes, schedules, and tools that keep A/E/C firms’ business development strategy and marketing efforts on track. Frank has worked at small, medium, large, and mega-sized engineering companies in his 30 years in the A/E/C industry. He speaks regularly at SMPS, ACEC, WTS, APWA, and SAME conferences. Frank has served as the SMPS Society chapter delegate and Society president. He has been recognized as an SMPS Fellow (FSMPS) and is a Certified Professional Services Marketer (CPSM).

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