FSG Blog
April 12, 2024

Anticipating the Human Factors in a Scenario Planning Experience

Kevin McDermott and Peter Kennedy
FSG Principals

This is the second installment of a two-part series on scenario planning best practices. In the first blog segment we examined the unique “teleporting” power of scenario planning workshops. In this second installment, we consider the human factors that make scenario workshops – and the downstream tasks that follow – compelling, productive and durable.  

We talk a lot about imagination and rigor in our scenario planning work – imagination in forging challenging and realistic future worlds and rigor in distilling strategic insights and building effective implementation plans.

But in designing a scenario process the human component is too often overlooked. If the right mix of people is not part of the work even the most intellectually dazzling process will fall flat. The planning organization will have wasted time and money. Even worse, failure could engender cynicism around future planning endeavors.

Making scenario planning something great begins with the essential contribution of executive leadership. This is true for any strategic planning exercise, but especially for scenario planning, given its somewhat unorthodox nature and the demands it places on highly valued (and often overcommitted) individuals in the organization.

Ideally, the CEO should not only be knowledgeable but actively supportive of the effort and of the people committed to it. There are three reasons why this is the case:

1. It validates the importance of the strategic undertaking.

2. It ensures that high-performing individuals are assigned to the project’s core team. 

3. It mitigates the risk of the scenario work being undermined by competing projects and agendas (or by competing consultants). 

At a minimum executive support signals that the organization is so serious about this work that it will invest the time of senior leaders and rising stars in making it successful. That time may be invested in a number of ways, from making themselves available for interviews, participating in regular briefings and, ideally, participating in strategy workshops.

CEOs and senior leaders also contribute to scenario-planning success by neutralizing project obstacles. Sometimes these are mundane issues like schedule conflicts. But often they are sticky human factors – e.g., opposition to the process from influential stakeholders inside the organization.

CEOs perform a great service by enlisting such skeptics in the project by, for example, inviting them to participate in the interviews that help build scenarios or encouraging them – even requiring them ­– to participate in the planning workshop. These doubters may additionally have a productive role in the downstream implementation work. But it often does require senior leadership nudge to get them involved and make theme a force for good. 

Being smart about who participates in scenario planning 

It is well established that organizational success is strongly correlated with a diverse workforce. A scenario-planning team is no different. The choice of who participates in the work is itself a strategic choice. Not every organization realizes this.

Demographic diversity—age, gender, race, ethnicity—is assumed when organizations begin assembling workshop teams. FSG scenario consultants also remind clients of the essential element of functional diversity. By that we mean representatives from different parts of the organization and from different skill sets. Both kinds of diversity will be needed if the organization is to feel ownership of what a scenario-planning process delivers.

The reflex in many organizations is for project organizers to recruit “creatives” or conventionally strategic types as participants in the work. This risk of group think with such an approach is high.

Technical specialists are not typically thought of as having strategy chops. But as our colleague Joe Dufresne has pointed out, some specialists like engineers are trained problem-solvers. Who is better suited to devise inventive solutions to novel challenges?

Moreover, the so-called “left-brain types” from engineering, finance, IT, legal and other functional specialties are the people who will be charged with getting strategies funded and implemented. They ensure that the transformative thinking emerging from scenario planning can be made real. Sidelining them from strategic conversations is a big mistake. 

Here’s one example of what we mean from a recent scenario consulting engagement.

A global food company was exploring future brand, marketing and supply issues. Climate change was a prominent scenario theme. Workshop participants focused on the public-policy and brand-image implications of a changing climate. A lonely voice from the manufacturing side of the house raised an issue that no one else brought up: the need to explore alternative ingredients as climate change made traditional product inputs scarce and expensive. It was a vital contribution that might have been overlooked without a representative from the operational side of the business.

From big thinking to practical action

Investing in a diverse group of contributors is most critical in the post-workshop strategy execution phase of a project. That is when implementation teams, typically comprised of specialists and technicians, are assembled to take the big ideas generated in scenario-planning workshops and put them to work. The farther away these individuals are from the scenario process the more difficult it will be for them to grasp the intent behind the strategies and the requirements for successful execution. 

As a practical matter, many if not most of the implementation team members will not have participated in the scenario workshops. FSG recommends that project organizers design mini-scenario immersion exercises to give implementation team members a taste of the experience. More importantly, it gives them an appreciation for the rigor that went into the development of the strategies. It is also useful to solicit their input on how to execute strategies so that they feel personally connected to what they are being asked to do. 

As we’ve posted previously, scenario planning enthusiasm can dissipate soon after workshop participants return to their regular day jobs. At the same time, the technical requirements of a scenario-planning project expand as the work goes further out in time. This is perhaps the biggest scenario project challenge for project principals – to maintain energy and focus on multiple fronts, with new participants and ever-changing operating conditions. 

This is where strong executive leadership comes back into play – to keep scenario-based strategy execution a priority and to support the hard-working project team that’s shaping the organization’s future. 

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8 thoughts on “Anticipating the Human Factors in a Scenario Planning Experience”

  1. An excellent reiteration of the importance of a vital part of the scenario planning process, clearly and persuasively explained. As with so many things, the human factor can make or break.

    • Thanks, Gerard. Happy to share this bit of strategic planning wisdom, derived from a wide variety of consulting experiences — corporate, government, not-for-profit — over the last 20+ years. In the early days we thought that if you built a cool scenario tool, stakeholders would jump on board. Over time we learned that this wasn’t enough, and that human factors had to be carefully managed for project goals to be achieved.

  2. Exactly! The scenario workshop process is challenging and worthwhile, but only the first, small step in building a worthwhile process and product for the organization. You have to do the work from the beginning to have the right people involved in the process, and also think about who is going to use the product downstream and how. All the points you make help do this.

    • Agreed, Joe.

      Something I don’t believe clients always realize is that consultants take an enduring interest in the execution of the ideas they help develop after an engagement is completed. It is frustrating to see a client spend money and time developing rich perspective on the future only to have it die at the feet of someone who does not understand what they have been given or who was never invested in the work to begin with.

      When the opposite happens, when the right mix of people is assembled, the results can be transformative. Those are the clients who stay in touch with us for years after.

  3. So much consulting today focuses on automating functions, efficient information flow and world class resources that at times it appears that a successful strategy can be assembled overnight on a plug and play basis. In reality it is the institutional memory that resides in the employees at all levels of the organization that make the difference between success and failure. As Kevin and Peter point out strategy development must tap into this institutional memory and understand what it knows to be successful.

    • Well put, Robert. Couldn’t agree more. But I wonder how many organizations actually possess institutional memories, given the relativity brevity of employee tenure. That’s a real loss.

  4. Peter, I couldn’t get past the part about the supportive CEO. Out of pure curiosity, in Longview. with a certain ADM C at the helm of our organization, how much time was invested in getting him up to speed and on board BEFORE we started?

    • Thanks, Steve. Great hearing from you. I honestly don’t recall our transactions with ADM C in the early months of the process. At least an indepth interview, plus 0951 briefings, scenario selection workshop? I’ll ask around…


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