Pandemics and the Lost Art of Scenario Planning
In the current crisis, some in government seem to be making it up as they go along, issuing waves of new policies and edicts before they can see the effects of the ones they’ve already enacted, and failing to consider the unintended consequences. While state and local plans for dealing specifically with COVID-19 may not have been on the shelf, it would have been incredibly helpful to have even a partially relevant playbook to consult as the pandemic unfolded. An increasingly useful volume might be titled, “How to Restart the Economy after a Deliberate Shutdown.”
In a 1957 speech, President Eisenhower reflected on a lesson about dealing with emergencies that he learned in the Army: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Similarly, the Prussian military strategist von Moltke is credited with the phrase, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Both leaders make the point that crises will always unfold in unexpected ways, but planning is an essential discipline to prepare organizations and governments for dealing with them.
As the economy of the 20th century globalized, multinational corporations realized that events on the other side of the world could no longer be safely ignored. A war in the Middle East could disrupt oil supplies everywhere. A nasty virus originating in Asia could be spread quickly by air travelers to all corners of the globe. In response, organizations like energy giant Royal Dutch Shell and the US think tank RAND Corporation developed a systematic way to identify possible future challenges and devise ways to deal with them. They called it “scenario planning”.
Scenario planning is not a prediction or forecasting tool. It is a strategic planning methodology that analyzes the drivers of change in an area of vital interest. It is based not on determining final answers but on identifying possible futures surrounding questions like “What is the long-term prognosis for nuclear power in the US?” or “How must university instruction change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?”.
The answers to the questions are not definitive. But they can be extremely informative, and this is where the work can be simultaneously serious and fun. Developing scenarios is about writing well-researched, exciting stories. The process provides a platform for your team to flex their imaginations, knowledge and judgment on topics that should be of great importance to your organizations and communities.
There are any number of helpful books and articles on the mechanics of running scenario planning exercises, so we won’t go into them here. Properly done, they will produce the foundation for powerful contingency plans that at the very least provide leaders with clear, concrete steps that should (and should not) be taken in the first, critical hours of an emergency. They can also drive long-term planning for non-emergency situations. With a range of scenarios in hand, your team will see patterns that let them make decisions now. For example, “Since this outcome seems to be common to most of the scenarios, no matter what, we should do X as soon as possible”, or “although the risk of this event for our community is small, the consequences would be catastrophic, so it’s prudent to prepare by doing Y”.
Though we are weeks in to our current predicament, we are likely months or longer away from the end of it. Thoughtful leaders can prepare themselves and their communities for whatever comes by sitting down with their teams now and writing the stories that will guide them forward no matter what the future has in store. We might begin with “Scenario 1: COVID cases rise again after we re-open” or “Scenario 2: There is no effective COVID treatment or vaccine”.