Getting real with scenario-based strategy
Lots of people ask us what they can read to find out more about how scenario-based strategy is done in the real world.
Well, the United States Coast Guard has come to their rescue, as they have for so many others in the past. Their just-released book, Creating and Sustaining Strategic Intent in the U.S. Coast Guard, recounts their using scenario-based strategic planning to prepare them for the future.
For fifteen years, the Futures Strategy Group and its predecessor organizations had the honor of facilitating scenario planning with the Coast Guard, and it is no false humility on our part to say that we learned at least as much from the Coast Guard about how to do scenario planning as the Coast Guard learned from us.
Though scenario planning originated in the military, its most famous applications prior to 1998 were in the private sector, in places like the oil industry in the 1970s, and later on in banking, pharmaceuticals, professional services, retail, and auto manufacturing, all of which we at FSG had served.
The Coast Guard, always an innovator, had tried some scenario planning in the early 1990s, after enduring a series of unexpected and game-changing events (Mariel Boatlift, Exxon Valdez, rise in maritime drug trafficking and seaborne illegal immigration). A spate of downsizing during the Clinton administration followed, and the service realized that their fate depended not just on their own efforts, or even just on the conditions of their familiar mission areas, but also on more general societal and economic trends – fiscal pressures, political movements, technological innovation, global tectonic shifts, even possible changes in climate.
So in 1998 they brought in the predecessor organization to the Futures Strategy Group to pursue scenario planning in a more thoroughgoing manner. The result was Project Long View, which imagined five different futures for the service. The Long View workshops resulted in ten strategies that were not immediately embraced by the Coast Guard, but which time proved to be extremely prescient. But Long View was conceived as a one-off exercise, and just two of the original Long View strategies were executed (and some might argue that those two would have been carried out in any case).
Then came 9/11, and the service was hit with an increase in “ops tempo” unseen since the Second World War. The new Chief of Staff happened to run across the Long View strategies, and was convinced that they would have positioned the service far better for the terrorist attacks and accompanying upheavals, had they been fully executed. He called for a review of the Long View experience, and the result was Evergreen – an institutionalized, cyclical, organic scenario-based strategic planning effort that would be tied to the 4-year term of the Commandant of the Coast Guard.
The book cited above, Creating and Sustaining Strategic Intent in the U.S. Coast Guard, chronicles those cycles, and the evolution of the practice of scenario planning across the years. Among the events and trends with which it deals:
- The difficult balance between the security and commerce-related aspects of the Coast Guard’s missions.
- The increasing importance of climate change, particularly the Arctic, to the service.
- The criticality of the underwater realm.
- The technological revolution (computing, communications, automation, robotics).
- The evolution of the ultimate product of the process from finished strategies handed off to the organization to “strategic needs” that allow the organization to determine the means of addressing them with greater flexibility.
I think I can say with some degree of confidence that the experience that this publication documents is the most significant, thorough-going, and continuous experiment in scenario planning that has been undertaken anywhere in the past two decades. It has shaped the Coast Guard in both obvious and less visible ways, and has implanted within an entire generation of organizational leadership what that long-ago Chief of Staff and later Commandant, ADM Thad Allen, described as “strategic intent.”
We are honored to have had a hand in producing it.
Readers can download their own copy by clicking here.
December 2021 update: The Harvard Business Review highlights the Coast Guard’s experience with strategic foresight and scenario-based strategy in the July-August 2020 issue. The article is titled, “Learning from the Future.”