Map Many Scenarios, Choose a Few

I’m preparing for my next Disruption By Design leadership program, which starts in May, and the first few participants have shared what they most want to get from the three months we’ll be working together. Not surprisingly, ‘leading in uncertainty’ is a common theme! As we’re gradually learning to ‘live with COVID’, we’re starting to look ahead – but the future is still full of constant change and ongoing uncertainty. We don’t know how it will unfold, so we need to prepare for many futures.

But there’s a right and a wrong way to do this.

I discovered this on a country road a few years ago.

A few years ago, I had my first dangerous close encounter with a kangaroo when driving on a country road. We were enjoying a quiet weekend away in the beautiful South-West region of Australia, driving on a road near the beach, when a roo jumped out from bushes in front of us. Fortunately, it hopped across the road quickly, and we avoided an accident. But it was close, and there was nothing I could have done if we had been crossing its path a few seconds earlier.

As a result of this close call, for the next couple of hours I was very cautious when driving, examining every bush on the side of the road as if it might have a kangaroo lurking behind it. In fact, I became overly cautious, until I realised it was crazy to have that attitude forever. Yes, we need to be alert for roos, but we can’t drive forever with one foot hovering over the brake pedal.

The same applies to the way you view the future.

Future-ready leaders prioritise scenarios.

Australia has managed the pandemic better than most of the rest of the world, but many things are still changing fast, often in ways we have never experienced before – such as low interest rates, supermarket supply chain issues, more friction with travel, and of course ongoing risks with COVID-19.

If you’re leading a team, business, community, or family, you’ll be navigating your way through unknown future scenarios. But not all those scenarios deserve equal attention.

They fall into four groups:


You deal with them differently, depending on where they fit.

Long-term and unlikely: Ignore for now.

Some things are speculative, and even if they happened, won’t affect you in the short term. So it’s usually safe to ignore them for now.

For example, as much as we might get excited about Elon Musk planning to build a million-person colony on Mars, there are many obstacles to overcome, and it’s estimated to take 40-100 years. So most of us don’t have to take that into account in our business decisions.

Short-term and unlikely: Keep on radar.

Some other things seem unlikely right now, but will have an immediate impact if they happen. It’s risky to ignore them, but we can just keep them on the radar and stay alert in case they suddenly appear on the horizon.

For example, a significantly more dangerous COVID-19 variant falls into this category. It’s not looking likely, but it could happen, so we need to keep it on our radar.

Long-term but certain: Inform strategy.

Some scenarios are inevitable, but might not happen for a while. As a leader, these fall under your responsibility, and they should inform your strategic direction, even if you don’t plan to act on them immediately.

For example, autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars) will replace drivers, just as surely and completely as cars replaced the horse and buggy. But there are still many hurdles to overcome – mainly because driving is so ingrained in society. So, it will be years before fully autonomous vehicles become mainstream, but as a leader, you should definitely incorporate them into your strategic thinking now.

Immediate and certain: Act now!

Finally, you will face some scenarios that are both highly likely (if not already happening) and with short-term impact. Obviously, you need to plan for them and act immediately.

Whatever your industry, I’m sure you can find many examples: new regulations, actions from competitors, new technology, global competition, and more. In fact, these are usually the easiest scenarios to identify.

Which scenarios are YOU planning for?

If you have never done this kind of scenario planning before, I highly recommend it. I also recommend you involve your team members, because they bring different perspectives to the conversation.

When I work with leaders and their teams to work through this process, I see three common traps and mistakes:

  1. Not going wide enough: Don’t self-censor too soon. Even if a scenario seems unlikely or too far away, include it in the discussion. That doesn’t mean you need to tackle it immediately, but at least consider it – and then later decide where it fits in your scenario planning.
  2. Too much focus on unlikely scenarios: That said, don’t get side-tracked by hype, wishful thinking, and Bright Shiny Objects. By all means, identify them, but make a realistic assessment about their impact.
  3. Too many short-term actions: It’s easy to identify immediate and likely scenarios (the top-right corner of the model above), and it’s easiest to create plans for these scenarios. The danger is that you only spend your time in this area! You will be highly focussed, but also very narrow-minded in your thinking – and that’s bad for a leader.

Do this scenario planning exercise now! It’s not just useful – it’s your responsibility as a leader.


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