Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy. Our inner critic keeps us from realizing our greatest potential – and, thus, holds our teams and whole organizations back. This is what I call “default thinking.” It limits our options, stifles creativity and prevents us from seeing the entire spectrum of nuanced alternatives that exists between the obvious extremes.
There is a powerful antidote to default thinking. It’s called scenario thinking, the ability to see multiple alternatives at once and react quickly in response to opportunities.
I’ve seen hundreds of leaders adapt this strategy with great success. They become comfortable experimenting with “what if” possibilities and use scenario thinking as a lens rather than a major planning exercise.
The idea is to discipline yourself to examine the surrounding landscape for multiple possible options, and then plan your actions accordingly. Therefore, scenario thinking is not solely about anticipating the future; it is about adjusting your plans and decisions in response to real-time events and complexity.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Banish fear.
This is the most important step, because fear is a distortion that can stop us cold. It creates “black and white” thinking, and when we let it take over, we become reactive and emotional instead of creative and practical.
2. Determine your outcome.
When the stakes are high, you need to spend some time on preparation. Think creatively about the outcome you are looking for, focusing strictly on your ideal end result as opposed to how you will achieve it. Be specific, and keep it simple.
3. Create your options.
Consider three ways to achieve your outcomes. I suggest mapping out a best case, worst case and very best case. In your best case, things proceed as expected with nary a speed bump or unexpected event. Simply thinking through that scenario will help clarify your expectations and queue up your plan. Keep in mind that it is possible that none of your scenarios will come to pass exactly as you’ve mapped them out. The idea is to consider and create possibilities, and then identify ways to move ahead.
4. Identify and assess your stakeholders.
Consider your outcomes with key stakeholders in mind: How will peers, competitors and clients impact the likelihood of achieving your goal? In what ways might their views impact your decisions and help or harm your chances of success? Taking this step even further, think about what is most important to your stakeholders and where your interests overlap with theirs.
5. Respond to your constraints.
Think about project deadlines, end dates such as fiscal year goals and any personal timing constraints you may face. Do any of these timelines have the potential to change or shift?
What else is occurring inside your business, or outside, in the competitive landscape, that might impact success? Constraints (and opportunities) might include budgeting and resources, competing products or programs, or even legislation that will affect the success of your plan.
After you consider your stakeholders and constraints, think about the specific “if/then” rules or options you can build into your scenarios. For example: “If my budget is slashed, then I will look for outside funding,” or, “If my customers push back, then I will decrease the price.” Possible scenarios become quite real!
6. Remain nimble and proceed.
A primary point of scenario thinking is to clear a safe path for action. Having peered into the future to consider how different scenarios could play out, you are now fully prepared to proceed no matter which scenario unfolds in reality.
As you confidently move forward, remember that the process should remain iterative: Constantly scan the environment, remain dynamic, and be ready to adjust and adapt. When something starts working, stand poised to leverage the momentum, but remember, things change quickly. The most successful leaders I know are flexible and open-minded and realize that there’s never only one response to an opportunity.