Strategic Management > Scenario Planning

Scenario Planning

Traditional forecasting techniques often fail to predict significant changes in the firm's external environment, especially when the change is rapid and turbulent or when information is limited. Consequently, important opportunities and serious threats may be overlooked and the very survival of the firm may be at stake. Scenario planning is a tool specifically designed to deal with major, uncertain shifts in the firm's environment.

Scenario planning has its roots in military strategy studies. Herman Kahn was an early founder of scenario-based planning in his work related to the possible scenarios associated with thermonuclear war ("thinking the unthinkable"). Scenario planning was transformed into a business tool in the late 1960's and early 1970's, most notably by Pierre Wack who developed the scenario planning system used by Royal Dutch/Shell. As a result of these efforts, Shell was prepared to deal with the oil shock that occurred in late 1973 and greatly improved its competitive position in the industry during the oil crisis and the oil glut that followed.

Scenario planning is not about predicting the future. Rather, it attempts to describe what is possible. The result of a scenario analysis is a group of distinct futures, all of which are plausible. The challenge then is how to deal with each of the possible scenarios.

Scenario planning often takes place in a workshop setting of high level executives, technical experts, and industry leaders. The idea is to bring together a wide range of perspectives in order to consider scenarios other than the widely accepted forecasts. The scenario development process should include interviews with managers who later will formulate and implement strategies based on the scenario analysis - without their input the scenarios may leave out important details and not lead to action if they do not address issues important to those who will implement the strategy.

Some of the benefits of scenario planning include:

The Scenario Planning Process

The following outlines the sequence of actions that may constitute the process of scenario planning.

  1. Specify the scope of the planning and its time frame.

  2. For the present situation, develop a clear understanding that will serve as the common departure point for each of the scenarios.

  3. Identify predetermined elements that are virtually certain to occur and that will be driving forces.

  4. Identify the critical uncertainties in the environmental variables. If the scope of the analysis is wide, these may be in the macro-environment, for example, political, economic, social, and technological factors (as in PEST).

  5. Identify the more important drivers. One technique for doing so is as follows. Assign each environmental variable two numerical ratings: one rating for its range of variation and another for the strength of its impact on the firm. Multiply these ratings together to arrive at a number that specifies the significance of each environmental factor. For example, consider the extreme case in which a variable had a very large range such that it might be rated a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 for variation, but in which the variable had very little impact on the firm so that the strength of impact rating would be a 1. Multiplying the two together would yield 10 out of a possible 100, revealing that the variable is not highly critical. After performing this calculation for all of the variables, identify the two having the highest significance.

  6. Consider a few possible values for each variable, ranging between extremes while avoiding highly improbable values.

  7. To analyze the interaction between the variables, develop a matrix of scenarios using the two most important variables and their possible values. Each cell in the matrix then represents a single scenario. For easy reference in later discussion it is worthwhile to give each scenario a descriptive name. If there are more than two critical factors, a multidimensional matrix can be created to handle them but would be difficult to visualize beyond 2 or 3 dimensions. Alternatively, factors can be taken in pairs to generate several two-dimensional matrices. A scenario matrix might look something like this:

    Scenario Matrix

    Outcome 1A
    Outcome 1B


    Outcome 2A -->
    Scenario 1 Scenario 2

    Outcome 2B -->
    Scenario 3 Scenario 4

    One of these scenarios most likely will reflect the mainstream views of the future. The other scenarios will shed light on what else is possible.

  8. At this point there is not any detail associated with these "first-generation" scenarios. They are simply high level descriptions of a combination of important environmental variables. Specifics can be generated by writing a story to develop each scenario starting from the present. The story should be internally consistent for the selected scenario so that it describes that particular future as realistically as possible. Experts in specific fields may be called upon to devlop each story, possibly with the use of computer simulation models. Game theory may be used to gain an understanding of how each actor pursuing its own self interest might respond in the scenario. The goal of the stories is to transform the analysis from a simple matrix of the obvious range of environmental factors into decision scenarios useful for strategic planning.

  9. Quantify the impact of each scenario on the firm, and formulate appropriate strategies.

An additional step might be to assign a probability to each scenario. Opinions differ on whether one should attempt to assign probabilities when there may be little basis for determining them.

Business unit managers may not take scenarios seriously if they deviate too much from their preconceived view of the world. Many will prefer to rely on forecasts and their judgement, even if they realize that they may miss important changes in the firm's environment. To overcome this reluctance to broaden their thinking, it is useful to create "phantom" scenarios that show the adverse results if the firm were to base its decisions on the mainstream view while the reality turned out to be one of the other scenarios.

Recommended Reading

Wack, Pierre. "Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead." Harvard Business Review 63, no. 5 (1985)

Strategic Management > Scenario Planning

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