We need to get past the uncomfortable if we want to prepare for the unplannable
One of the most common things I’m hearing right now is this: “The team are really uncomfortable with the idea of looking at scenarios for the future. There’s so much uncertainty, so many moving parts, we can’t even decide what scenarios to look at.”
There is an old adage that perfectionism kills progress. It reflects the temptation many of us have, to tinker and refine in search of the perfect phrase, the perfect solution, rather than pushing the button when it’s 90% right and moving on to the next big thing.
It fits right in with the “analysis paralysis” aphorism – where we avoid making decisions until we know all the facts, irrespective of the knowledge, deep down, that the only time we’ll know all the facts is when it’s too late.
But here’s the thing: you don’t wait for a fire to happen, so you can see exactly where it starts and how fast it spreads, before you write your fire contingency plan. You imagine the scenario, and you start writing.
For most charities, there will be enormous challenges ahead, and for some, those challenges will be existential. A significant number of charities will fail in the next twelve months.
But failure is not inevitable. The more we think about what those potential challenges might look like, and the more willing we are to think the unthinkable in response: closures, mergers, fundamental changes to the model, entirely different approaches and so on; the more options we can create and explore to address them.
And, crucially, the more time we can buy for ourselves to prepare, and the more clarity we can put around the “trigger for action”, or the “last safe date” to make the call on those options, the more chance there is that we can find and navigate a route, whereby somehow, in some shape or form, those who rely upon us can continue to get the help they need.
This is the fundamental difference between a forecast and a scenario. A forecast is what we reasonably expect to happen, within some margin of error. It’s a tool to help build plans. It gives a degree of comfort that we have a good idea of what’s coming.
Conversely, a scenario is a provocative picture of a possible future. It’s a tool to help build options and contingencies that you may hope not to use, but that could metaphorically save your life. Scenarios exist to create discomfort – to make you think, to generate more radical ideas and solutions, to mentally prepare you for the possibility that something like it may someday happen.
Right now, the degree of uncertainty renders most forecasts pretty useless, which is why we need to start looking at some uncomfortable scenarios instead. Scenarios we don’t know will happen but might. And we need to fully engage with them and their implications, to ask the simple questions: What would we do in that situation? What would we wish we had done a few months ago had we suspected this might happen?
You might have a bunch of services you can’t operate under lockdown. It’s frustrating for the team and possibly damaging for the people you’d usually help, but you’re furloughing staff, they’re still being paid, and the decision is out of your hands.
But what happens when lockdown ends? When the furlough payments are pulled because we can “all go back to work”, but the distancing restrictions mean you can’t fill your classrooms, your services, your cafés to a viable capacity; or work hands-on, or in enclosed environments? When everyone needs to be tested on a weekly basis, and isolated with no notice if it comes back positive? When we all have to instantly move back to more restrictions over fears of a second wave?
Those scenarios might not all happen, but if they did, what would you do? What preparation would you wish you’d begun earlier, had you seen it coming? And what events or circumstances would trigger you to execute those options in time to land them properly?
The ultimate question about scenario planning is this: Would you rather feel the heat now, invest in extinguishers and test out your evac drill; or would you prefer to take your chances that the real heat will never come, and risk that it will spark into life when you least expect it and are least prepared to handle it?
There is never a good time to look at this stuff. But neither will there be any time soon when things magically become clear, and there will certainly never be a better time to ask these uncomfortable questions than right now, while you’ve still got time to find the answers.