Predictions are bogus for the most part. Simply because the whole future is uncertain. You can’t make strategies around them. 

Scenarios, on the other hand, help you avoid snafus. They’re like alternate futures in which today’s decisions play out. They start someplace, end someplace, and have in between twists and turns. Understanding probable scenarios and thinking them through is like low-cost insurance that empowers you to keep going strong even in rapidly changing environments. 

Spotting the COVID research gap is going to need some critical scenario planning. MD at Deloitte, Andrew Blau once said, “The only thing that seems certain is that the future will surprise us.” And these surprises are likely to hit every industry across timelines and time zones.

The odds of success or failure can only be evaluated, anticipated, and tackled as we go.

Besides, scenario thinking encourages us to go beyond the obvious and purely descriptive. It looks for deep underlying relationships between existing factors and how they’d evolve under changing circumstances.

Planning good scenarios

The whole future is uncertain, yes. Anything is possible, also yes. But not everything is probable. And you can make events plausible rather than leaving them to a game of probability. Jimmy Davidson, head of group planning at Royal Dutch Shell (1967 – 1976) articulates: 

But, of course, you can never identify all the forces at play. If you could and see their interactions, then the real prediction of the future would be simple.This is never likely to be possible, and furthermore, there are some situations that balance on a hair’s breadth.

Thought leaders warn against the temptation to over-analyze multiple possibilities with paralyzing uncertainties.

When you’re planning these highly-to-mildly probable scenarios, each needs detail. For instance, the pandemic has been a tailwind to demand from online learning, what does that mean for online and offline channel partnerships in education? At the same time, existing supply chain mechanisms in retail and automation may need to re-evaluate. 

The tourist industry has paradigms that oscillate between multiple realities. COVID-battered places may suffer an immediate drop in business and lose popularity. Alternatively, some tourists may see it fit to economically support these places during the recovery phase of the crisis. 

What does it take?

In any case, a good strategy is one that understands what it takes to be prepared before the ink dries. You need to ride out the short-term without losing sight of the long-term. When the (NOAA) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries piloted an initiative to improve the endangered U.S.salmon population, there were multiple things to think about.

The changing conditions in the riverine, estuarine, and marine environments across the Atlantic current range presented several uncertainties. And the species resilience was looking down. They hoped to determine how scenario planning can support important decisions. Among them were actionable measures, research triggers around the matter, and collaborations to improve the resilience of the species. 

Similarly, Deloitte’s ‘Thrive Scenarios for Resilient Leaders’ attempts to study case scenarios that would enable recovery in different aspects of society, technology, economy, environment,  and politics. In both examples, leaders, and decision-makers make sure they focus on two things:

  • Why these scenarios would happen and what would that imply
  • Data from the past that can help draw logical sequences of plausible situations

They also stay away from:

  • Probabilities, because it’s important to stay prepared even if something improbable happens
  • Forecasts and predictions
  • Specific details in these plausible scenarios
  • And anchor down on one pet scenario because of a bias

What happens next

Scenario planning should be like saving the salmon. Just as the NOAA initiative prioritized near-term actions with current resources considering possibilities in the long-term. They synthesized temperature, flow, and other conditions and reduce the dam-associated mortality rate. The rest was just an examination of survival links in the ecosystem and course correction through the project.

Making sense of the future at the global level is no doubt more complex. While geopolitical teams seek to formulate an official future around focus problems. Important questions are asked based on reasonable assumptions. Fundamentally, it seeks out resilient answers to ‘What if we’re wrong and how can we help that?’ 

Zooming out further

A single modular approach is rarely a comprehensive solution. Other popular tools of planning are the BCG Growth-Share Matrix, the good ole’ SWOT analysis, and Michael Porter’s five forces of competitive positioning to name a few. Scenario planning is just one way to chart your course of action. 

Besides, not every problem needs a strategic approach. Some problems just need regular solutions, you don’t need to call 911 for a paper cut even if they’re going to be really nice about it. The idea of strategic planning is to keep from making angst-ridden decisions that strategy heads agree upon. The logic is explicit, the problem statement is simple, and the strategy itself is not about perfection. 

Research gap spotting in the aftermath of the pandemic isn’t about chasing shadows. Our ability to ride out a crisis despite the severity depends on the ability to coordinate across geopolitical and other contributing forces.