You’ve planned for the future: Now what?

Don't let the arcane language of scenario planning keep you from making decisions

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Last December I wrote an article about scenario planning that was inspired by a friend’s question about real estate professionals being replaced by technology.

With the National Association of Realtors Strategic Planning Committee meeting today to discuss scenario planning, I figured now would be a good time to write about what you do after a scenario planning session.

Quick recap for those of you who think that scenario planning involves Dungeons & Dragons, something outlawed in some states, or both: Scenario planning is an exercise where the participants imagine a possible future and how it will impact them.

Ideally, participants will also imagine how they will operate in that possible future. Scenario planning can range in complexity from a conversation over coffee with a lot of "what if" statements to a full simulation complete with props.

One of the great benefits of scenario planning is to open up lateral thinking capabilities and prevent tunnel vision. This is important in environments of increasing amounts of change or increasing consequences for change — or both.

So after you’ve had a big scenario planning session with other bright minds, stretching out those brain muscles, what do you do? It’s fine and good to play pretend for a day or two, but what happens when you come back to the present?

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Here are some thoughts about what happens next. Those of you who are into this sort of thing will notice thinly veiled aspects of the OODA loop (observe, orient, decide and act).

Pay attention (observe)

In your scenario, there were likely some specific trends that were identified as threats or opportunities. A fully fleshed-out scenario may bundle together several different trends and systems that are or are not related.

The skill of scenario planners rests in their ability to assemble plausible related trends. But the world doesn’t always work in a plausible fashion. Watch for any of the trends in your scenario being "unbundled" from the rest.

By paying attention to the individual trends that make up a scenario you’ll be able to see which aspects of the scenario are emerging as reality and which ones are not. Keeping an eye out for the smaller patterns helps you spot the larger patterns.

You may find it useful to assemble "observation posts" for certain key trends that you think will have a significant impact on your business. Which data points or sentiments would signal a particular trend from the scenario becoming a reality? Make a system to monitor these so you can fully participate in reality as it is emerging.

Analyze relationships (orient)

Many facets of a scenario are tightly related. For example, access to energy has a strong impact on distances people can live from their workplace or food source. Changes in one system may have repercussions in other systems.

A good scenario planning partner will help you identify the ways in which some systems are related. But you’ll want to keep that mindset going after the session as you observe trends actually happening in the real world.

There are a number of practical ways to do this. One is to see if any of the trends in your observation posts are tracking together. This means reviewing your observation posts in relationship to one another, not just as a collection of metrics.

Another is to read analysis of trends by authors who observe data in a variety of industries. By making yourself aware of trends inside and outside your industry you can gain insights into how systems and trends relate to one another.

These activities are different from paying attention. Paying attention is mostly about knowing things. Analyzing relationships involves thinking about things. Knowing and thinking are two completely different things, like apples and hedgehogs.

Participate in shaping the future (decide)

One of the valuable things about scenario planning is that you practice making decisions. You are confronted with a hypothetical future and you get to practice choosing what you’d do.

After a scenario planning session it’s easy to go back to business as usual. The future is only imaginary and it isn’t even here yet. It’s easy to forget about all that and just go back to getting through today.

Don’t do that. Once the scenario planning session is over, keep making decisions. Decide to be involved in the real world as it unfolds. Decide to participate in shaping the future. Decide to be aware of the trends that influence your business. If you don’t know what those trends are, decide to find out.

For many organizations — inside real estate and outside of it — decision-making is a complicated and slow-moving thing. If the world is changing at a pace faster than your organization can make decisions, then the world will get less and less comfortable.

Be involved and make decisions.

Start doing things (act)

If your scenario planning session went well, then you were probably a little bit uncomfortable for some of it. You also probably came up with some interesting ideas that would be worth trying in the hypothetical situation posed by the scenario.

Some of those ideas might be worth doing now. Do them. Start acting on them.

Another thing you can do is continue to do scenario planning work. Continue building the skills to envision potential futures.

You don’t have to do it alone either. You have friends inside your industry and, better yet, in your local business community who will be good partners in these kinds of exercises. You can hire consultants like myself to guide you and keep you your feet to the fire. But you’re more than capable of assembling a team of thinkers to continue scenario planning on your own, too.

Don’t let the arcane language of scenario planning keep you from continuing to:

  • Observe trends in the world.
  • Gain insights by seeing if those trends relate.
  • Make decisions.
  • Act today to position yourself for a better future.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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