Scenario Thinking for an Unpredictable Year: Status Quo is Not an Option


During the past month, many of us have had our lives and livelihoods completely upended. We have been forced to respond to emergencies in our work and for some of us, in our lives. For those of us still working, we have had to change our work and the way we work. For those with children, jobs are being balanced with new roles as principal, teacher, guidance counselor, cafeteria worker, janitor, and librarian at their brand new home school. We’ve had to lean into empathy and manage change like never before. If you are struggling, you are not alone.

Many organizations, programs, and initiatives are trying to figure out what the next phase of this looks like and when they will return to normal. The experts agree that that is at best going to happen in 12-18 months. Until then, we are going to work through a period of uncertainty with some combination of testing, contact tracing, surveillance, physical distancing, staggered opening of the economy, and targeted stay at home orders. We are not getting clear direction from our national leadership, but teams of experts have released credible plans that make clear it will be a difficult new normal.

How does one plan for an uncertain future with multiple health, social, and economic factors at play? Scenario Thinking might offer a path. Typically, scenario thinking is used when thinking out 5-10 years or more. But in our current disrupted environment, none of us can even see six months ahead so the same tools might be useful in assessing possible futures for later this year.

According to Katherine Fulton and Diana Scearce in their e-book, WHAT IF: The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits, Scenario Thinking is a process through which scenarios are developed and then used to inform strategy. It begins by identifying forces of change in the world. Those forces then are combined in different ways to create a set of diverse stories about how the future could unfold. These stories imagine what it would be like for an organization or community to live in each of these futures. Because scenarios are hypotheses, not predictions of the future, they are created and used in sets of multiple stories that capture a range of future possibilities, good and bad, expected and surprising. (1)

Step 1: Clarify the Issue at Stake

What is the issue you are trying to solve during the next 6-12 months. Be as specific as possible. Examples might be: How will my organization sustain financially? Or more specific questions like: How will we have to change our services to schools in the Fall? What new services will our population need during the next phase? How will our fundraising for next fiscal year need to change? Examine explicitly what assumptions you currently hold about your focus issue, and be willing to challenge them.

Step 2: Identify Driving Forces

What are the driving forces that will shape your focus issue? Driving forces are the forces of change outside your organization that will shape future dynamics in both predictable and unpredictable ways. They may include things like economic growth, unemployment rate, Covid-19 case growth, ability for more than 50 people to gather, extracurricular activities in schools canceled in Fall, suicide rates rising, who wins the election, etc. Brainstorm as many potential forces as possible that will affect your organization’s work with the people you engage and serve during the next 6-12 months.

Step 3: Prioritize Driving Forces

Prioritize your driving forces by two criteria (1) The degree of importance to your focal issue, and (2) the degree of uncertainty surrounding those forces. The goal is to identify 2 or 3 priority driving forces, “critical uncertainties,” that could be most important to the context in which you do your work. Picture these driving forces on a continuum between two extremes. Examples might include:

Now cross two of your priority driving factor continuums to create a table that you can use to explore four possible scenarios for the future. Make sure the four different combinations of forces will provide you a range of alternative scenarios, four distinct plausible futures. If you have more than two priority driving forces, create a second table with a different combination of priority factor continuums (which will enable additional scenarios to be created). For example, if you take the continuums above on economic growth and schools and cross them, it would form these quadrants:

Step 4: Develop scenario narratives

Write a story of what life will be like in each of the four scenario boxes. Focus on plausibility not scientifically provable (you can’t predict the future). Consider how you and your different constituents are likely to be affected by each scenario. How will lives, work, expectations, needs, and opportunities be different? How might systems leaders operate or respond? What might the path look like between where we are now and each scenario? Break into groups or spend adequate time on each one trying to get as specific and illustrative as possible. Your goal is not to predict, but to spark conversations about possible conditions that may affect your work.

For example, if you are working on the box in the upper right quadrant where Economic Recovery Begins and Schools are Closed or Limited with No Extra-curriculars, we might think that workplaces are opening and parents are going back to work; unemployment will still be high; kids will have limited after school activities and parents will not be at home; kids will not have as much exercise, cultural opportunities, or activities; children will have behavioral health needs from disappointments arising from more canceled sports seasons, plays, musicals; federal spending may pull back after a series of stimuli; increases in stock market and business sales may support more bullish philanthropy; digital learning and exercise for youth may be important; the African American community will be harder hit by the economic and health challenges and may lag in recovery. Keep going. Imagine the environment and think through each of your constituent’s experiences in it.

Step 5: Planning with scenarios

Your goal is NOT to pick one scenario you think is most possible, but to consider and plan across ALL scenarios. How will your work be different in each scenario? What actions would you take now to prepare in each case? What strategies can you employ that could work or be adaptable across different scenarios? Develop contingent, adaptive plans with milestones or future data points that will trigger decision making on which direction you might go, what you create, pause, or resume, etc. The key is that you are not planning on a best or worst-case scenario, but preparing for multiple possibilities.

Imagining these possible futures as context, you can use a tool like Strategy Triage to go through your existing strategies or workplans and perhaps sort them by what remains a current priority, what is newly prioritized, what is paused, what do we need to know more about, and what should we just let go.

Download a PDF of this tool in the resource library.


(1) This tool is adapted from WHAT IF?  The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits by Diana Scearce, Katherine Fulton, and the Global Business Network Community, 2004. The other primary resource is Global Business Network co-founder Peter Schwartz’s “The Art of the Long View: Paths to Strategic Insight for Yourself and Your Company,” 1996.


Sign Up to Download

You will also receive email updates on new ideas and resources from Collective Impact Forum.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Confirm Your Registration

You will also receive email updates on new ideas and resources from Collective Impact Forum.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.