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The Art of Scenario Planning By Dr. David Alexander

Learn to Rehearse the Future with Scenario Planning

The board is responsible for the mission, vision and over-arching plans of your organization. Those elected to the board answer a call to be stewards of the ministry’s purpose, health and effectiveness. Board members must seek the Lord’s guidance in all they do, but they must remember, the work, the talents have been entrusted to them. They have an essential role in organizational impact.

To complement its role in strategic planning, the board must seek and select an effective CEO. Then, the board must step back, empowering and supporting the CEO to fashion, resource, implement and execute annual operational plans that achieve the board-adopted strategic goals.

The Board’s Planning Challenges

Though board chairs, CEOs and board members know intuitively that they should be focused on the future; they constantly deal with obstacles that divert the board’s attention. Here are three barriers that can obscure a board’s future focus:

(1) The Tendency to Become Complacent—Boards may be complacent due to long-term success, a strong CEO, a pass-through board culture, a lack of vision, dependence on staff.

(2) The Tyranny of the Present—Boards may not see the future because they are managing the present; often, staff interests and activity keep them focused on today.

(3) The Pace of ChangeBoards may become overwhelmed with the pace and content of change in today’s culture. Business schools call this VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity).

Identify Driving Forces in Your Future

Fashioning strategic plans (3 years) is not the end of the board’s planning responsibility; effective boards must scan the horizon for driving forces that will affect the organization’s future. These driving forces may be internal or external.

Boards must anticipate and identify obstacles and opportunities that may challenge or shape the organization’s future. Do you maintain a list of predetermined elements that will, and critical uncertainties that may, affect your ministry?

Here’s a start:

Disruptive Technologies        Deferred Maintenance           Post-Christian Culture

Small Reserves                      Rise of Urban Centers             Social Entrepreneurism

Government Regulation         Maintaining Mission              Hiring Overseas Staff

Rise of the “Nones”                 Distrust of Organizations       Political Turmoil

Cost to Scale Programs         Crowdfunding                         Shifting Demographics

Potential & Purpose Scenario Planning

What happens once you’ve identified these driving forces? How does a board prepare for gradual shifts and radical disruption from within and without? How do you explore alternative strategies, organizational paradigms, and new delivery of services? How can you set aside long held mindsets in order to consider new programs?

Scenario planning has become a valuable tool in the strategic conversation. It engages internal and external stakeholders, crafts research-based narratives that foster dialogue about the organization’s future and reinforces a culture of innovation and growth.

When should an organization utilize scenario planning? The focal point of the process can be organization-wide “big ideas,” a new program or an external crisis or opportunity. Here are three examples:

(1) The Transformative Gift—You anticipate an estate gift of $25 million. You wish to explore varied uses of this transformative asset.

(2) The New Organizational Paradigm—You are a centralized, brick and mortar ministry headquartered in the U.S. You want to determine if you should decentralize and expand to five countries in 10 years.

(3) Coping with the Crash—You were set back by the 2008 Great Recession. You vowed to be prepared, to have options, if you ever experience another catastrophic downturn.

 Process of Scenario Planning

Much of the value of scenario planning is found in the process itself. Though boards are ultimately responsible for long-range strategic planning, the scenario planning process engages an array of stakeholders, encourages energetic dialogue about the organization’s future and tests the strength of your strategies. Scenario planning positions and prepares you to deal with future uncertainties.

Essential phases in the Scenario Planning Process

Phase 1—Establish the Need for Scenario Planning and Identify the Purpose

  • Initiate & resource process, appoint/secure facilitator
  • Communicate to stakeholders the issue being examined
  • Form the scenario planning team (Board members, Staff leaders)

Phase 2—Conduct Scenario Research, Identify Driving Forces

  • Recruit and establish internal and external research teams (Board, Staff, External experts, Stakeholders)
  • Conduct internal analysis—identify internal driving forces (Interviews/SWOT/Longitudinal data)
  • Conduct external analysis—identify external driving forces (STEEPR—Social, Technology, Economic, Environmental Political, Religious)
  • Compile findings/Convene internal and external teams
  • Identify “most important” and “most uncertain elements
  • Select primary driving forces for scenario narratives

Phase 3—Select Scenario Plots, Create Scenarios

  • Create plots and select titles
  • Write four scenarios—plausible, relevant, challenging (Avoid best-case, worst-case, business-as-usual)

Phase 4—Engage in Scenario Dialogue & Strategic Assessment

  • Invite stakeholders into scenario dialogue
  • Review purpose, present scenarios, rehearse and react to the four futures
  • Wind tunnel test institutional strategies within scenario dynamics
  • Use research and imagined futures to shape strategy
  • Develop scenario planning culture/practice ongoing strategic conversations

Power of Scenario Planning

Scenario planning provides boards and organizational leadership with a powerful tool. Organizations change. Yet we, and the organizations we serve, are naturally resistant to change. According to Peter Schwartz scenario planning capitalizes on the power of story to lower our defenses, “question our belief in the inevitability of more of the same,” and “challenge the official future.” Thomas Chermack says scenario planning enables you to assess and improve your ministry’s strategy, structure, culture and resources.

May the scenario planning process assist your board, help you look to the horizon, provide you strategic insight, and prepare you to deal with the risks and rewards that lie ahead. May you be blessed as you seek to serve the one who holds our future and who has entrusted the organization to your care.


Dr. David Alexander is President of Alexander Resource Strategies, a firm serving organizations that serve the common good, providing counsel in strategic planning, board development, executive coaching and capital campaigns. This is an excerpt from his article in the Spring 2018 edition of Outcomes Magazine.


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