Good News: Scenario Strategic Planning Can Help Restore a Bit of Predictability

To The Future of Your Business and Events


Sometime in the early days of this new century I gave a luncheon talk to a group of nonprofit association executives. The theme of that presentation was simply that the first casualty of the new century was predictability. Things began changing so rapidly and radically that in many instances, history was no longer a valuable indicator of what might lie ahead. Several years later we suffered the financial ravages of the Great Recession, an occurrence that policy makers and rest of us thought was not possible after the reforms instituted following the Great Depression of the 1930s. We were all naïve in thinking that a calamity on the scale of the Great Recession just couldn’t happen. It did and it took nearly a decade to recover from it.


Looking back now amidst the growing number of existential challenges that we face — global climate change, the pandemic that refuses to recede, political and economic dislocations, and unprecedented racial and gender discord to name just a few, the loss of predictability in so many arenas, while serious, is not the great leveler that I thought it would be nearly twenty years ago. We can work around the loss of predictability with relative ease. In fact, for those of us who plan and service live events, it has now become essential that we dedicate sufficient time, energy, and thoughtful analysis to identifying not just one potential future, but perhaps a dozen or more possibilities. This is the way you compensate for the loss of predictability. Business strategists call the process Scenario Strategic Planning.


Here is how it works. Unlike more traditional strategic planning that formulates predictions based on history as a guidepost, scenario planning recognizes that when chaos is rife, as it is now, it is virtually impossible to accurately define what the future may be like because there are just too many variables. Instead, scenario planning identifies many potential futures and builds appropriate elements to deal with each scenario should it occur. It is not fool proof, but it can be very valuable to give us a head start to meet the challenges of a new and different environment. Here, from the Certified in Exhibition Management (CEM) workbook is a textbook definition:

Scenario model: Used to address outside forces that may have significant influence on the organization. The strategic planning team identifies external forces and develops potential scenarios regarding how these forces might impact the organization ranging from worst-case to best-case scenarios. The team then considers how the organization might respond to each scenario and examines these potential responses for trends or commonalities. The trends and commonalities suggest the best use of resources and the most likely scenarios given the information presented at the time. The scenario model helps an organization think critically about available options in a dynamic environment instead of making quick decisions in a high-pressure time frame. This style is commonly used for risk management.”


A graphic depiction of Scenario Planning from IAEE’s CEM Workbook on Strategic Planning


Policy makers and the rest of us have colossally miscalculated, which can be expected while navigating unchartered waters; this time with respect to the course of the Covid Pandemic. Most of us in the events industry were in a celebratory mood just a short month ago thinking that the Covid Pandemic was in its waning days, and that we could soon return to our beloved live events without fear or hesitation. With the emergence of the Delta variant and two more waiting in the wings (Gamma and Lambda variants) the future is not nearly as certain, nor predictable. It is the perfect setting to engage in scenario planning. Here is a summary of the steps you and your team can take to be better prepared for the future, no matter what direction(s) it may take:

  1. Assemble your planning team. It should consist of a manageable number of independent thinkers, six to ten would be an ideal size, and not necessarily just department heads or senior management. Create a diverse blend of the organization’s employees to ensure all sectors’ voices are represented.
  2. Establish a schedule of planning sessions of not more than 60-90 minutes each to prevent meeting fatigue from impairing spontaneity and innovative thinking. Compress these initial meetings over say a month or two.
  3. Your goal should be to create a diverse, but manageable, number of potential future environments. Don’t be a traditionalist, think creatively, even if some of the scenarios seem far-fetched. Epidemiologists have long predicted a serious pandemic outbreak. The problem is few listened, and even fewer created a planning scenario to manage it.
  4. Each scenario should contain fundamental steps that can be taken quickly if that or a very similar scenario does develop.
  5. Don’t be reluctant to modify aspects of each scenario as developments occur. Your over-arching objective is to be better, but not totally, prepared to respond quickly to what may be unusual circumstance.
  6. You must revisit each of the scenarios created no less frequently than every six months. Remember, we are living in an age of hyper-dynamic change. You and your team must remain prepared for almost any imaginable scenario. This means discarding some scenarios and adding new ones regularly.

Learn from your experiences over the last year. Maintain a positive outlook, and remain focused in your goals.  This is a time to dig in your heels, be smart, and be collaborative. Proper preparation, even if not entirely complete, provides you with the protection you may need to sustain your business and your events.


Steven Hacker, CAE, CEM, FASAE

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