Tuesday, August 16, 2005

What If....?

The Global Business Network is calling for a different approach to strategic planning in What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits. Most strategic planning includes some kind of visioning: What is the future that our organization seeks to create, to shape? What will be different in our community, in our country, in the world, because of the work we do? This approach has the organization looking outward from inside: what is the impact that we will have out there?

What If? suggests incorporating "outside-in" visioning by brainstorming several possible futures or scenarios-- "provocative and plausible stories about diverse ways in which relevant issues outside of organizations might evolve." For example (and I made these up; they're not from the book), what if...

  • ...the price of oil exceeds $100 per barrel?
  • ...the Democrats re-take Congress and the White House in 2008?
  • ...our primary local employer outsources all its work?
You'd make up your own scenarios, then discuss: What might the organization do in each reality? How would the organization need to adapt? Who would be good partners in each scenario? What opportunities and challenges would need to be faced?

Why do this? GBN authors say that this kind of thinking builds a deeper understanding of the world in which your organization operates, helps you anticipate and prepare. "The reliability of the scenarios’ content is less important than the types of conversations and decisions that they spark... The test of a good set of scenarios is whether it enables an organization to learn, adapt and take effective action." The theory is that an organization that is more able to learn, and change its way of working based on what it learns is stronger, more adaptable, more likely to succeed no matter what scenario comes into existence.

Scenario thinking can be practiced at various levels of strategy development-- whether you’re engaging in a full-blown, multi-month strategic planning effort, you need to make a decision about a specific issue, or you want to test the sustainability of your current status quo. The publication also includes many case stories that illustrate how real organizations have applied scenario thinking.

I’m looking forward to incorporating scenario thinking into my own practice, and would love to hear from both consultants who are using it in their work with clients, and from nonprofits who have engaged in it. What works and doesn't about it?

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