The difference between scenario planning and worrying about the future

We live in times of constant change. Things that were true and known yesterday aren’t any longer, and the future often holds too many unknowns to plan for what’s coming confidently.

That constant change can cause a feeling of uncertainty and even anxiety. However, I prefer to see changes as opportunities. Change means that current approaches are being revisited. It means uncertainty, but it also brings the opportunity to get rid of old structures and behaviors that didn’t work as well as we thought.

How we approach change is the key to how we perceive it and how it impacts us.

First of all, we need to ensure that the majority of our mental energy is spent in the now, not the tomorrow or yesterday. What-if and what-could-have-been musings are only of value if we use them as learning opportunities for what we are doing right now. Otherwise, they quickly become wasted energy and distractions.

Now, as we think about coming changes and uncertainties (e.g., political developments, potential upcoming regulations, organizational changes), it is essential to avoid dwelling and being stuck in the phase of uncertainty and anxiety. We can guess endlessly as to what a specific change might mean for us. We won’t know until the dominos fall, and things get in motion. All along, we could have spent a lot of time feeling helpless and miserable until that decision day comes.

A much more productive approach is scenario planning: think about what the possible (plausible) outcomes could be, what those would mean for you, and what actions you would take. Think through your plan, then put it away until you need it and focus on the NOW again.

The point of scenario planning is to have done the mental homework and put it then away and not be stuck in the future what-ifs. Don’t be the deer in the headlights.

List possible scenarios – The starting point for scenario planning is to list all likely future outcomes. Given a particular unknown, what could happen, and what would the new circumstance be once the dice fell? What are the different options for how a situation could shake out? Try to make a complete list of all outcomes that are likely (not all that could be, or you will never stop adding to your list). Three to five possible scenarios usually is a good number.

Understand the trigger signals – Think about the trigger signal for each scenario. How would you know as early as possible that you are entering one scenario (expected outcome) rather than the other? Early signaling is the critical piece. Once the dice have fallen, you want to make sure you will adapt to the new situation as swiftly as possible.

Know your actions – Think through your best course of action for each scenario. When the chips fall, you don’t want to start thinking about what you will do next. Rather you want to have a plan ready that you can just pull out the drawer as soon as you see one of your early trigger signals show up. Be ready, have plans and actions, and then let go again and turn your attention to the now. Your future plans are only valuable in the future, not the now. If you get stuck in future what-if plans, you lose out on today’s opportunities.

Lay the groundwork (if needed) – If your plans require any groundwork to be laid and the investment is not too high, do it ahead of time. Be ready as much as you can, but find the right tradeoff between investing in things that might never happen and opportunities that you missed because you weren’t ready for them. Finding the right balance on this is the tricky part.

Move back to now – Don’t get stuck in scenario planning and future what-ifs!! Every minute you spend on dwelling in the future is a minute you have missed out on actual current opportunities. If you spend your time getting ready for the future, you will do a crappy job being successful in the now. Remember, only the now and today is what really matters.

Scenario planning allows you to mind-game and strategize an uncertain future that might scare you. Use it for that and do it to the point where you have a decent set of plans. Then stop dwelling in the future and move back to the now and here. That is the true value of scenario planning. Also, remember that no plan survives first contact with reality – more about that next week…

Get your ducks in a row and your dominos lined up. Then move back to the here and now and stop dwelling in future what-ifs. Don’t let potential future circumstances hold you back from what you can achieve TODAY!


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Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
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