Critical Uncertainties

Develop strategies for operating in a range of plausible yet unpredictable futures

Overview

A diverse group can quickly test the viability of current strategies and build their capacity to respond quickly to challenges. Long view, flexibility and resilience are important to providing a suitable response when an element of surprise invalidates a well-practiced strategy. This method allows a group to examine system critical and unpredictable future possibilities, and devise strategies to adjust existing practices to allow for the unexpected, and to continue managing standard practices.

 

How to use it

  • Test the viability of current strategies by exposing assumptions and uncertainties.
  • Increase capacity of everyone to adapt quickly, and absorb disruptions resiliently.
  • Develop more organization-wide confidence in managing the unknowable future.
  • Create long-term strategic visions.

How to apply it

Start:
  • Participants are invited to identify and explore the most critical and uncertain ‘realities’ in their operating environment or market.
  • Participants are invited to formulate strategies that would help operate successfully in different operating environments or markets.
Setting:
  • Participants sit around tables or a group of chairs. Everyone responsible for planning and executing strategy should be included in the session and everyone present has an equal opportunity to contribute.
  • Use 1-2-4-All for each step.
  • If groups are large, break into separate small groups to develop the four scenarios and related strategies.
Materials:

Paper, sticky notes or flip-chart.

Time/Steps:
  • 5 minutes: Participants make a list of uncertainties. Start the activity by asking, “In your operating environment, what factors are impossible to predict or control?”
  • 10 minutes: Prioritize the most critical elements for success by asking, “Which factors threaten your ability to operate successfully?”
  • 5 minutes: Ask participants to select the two most critical and uncertain factors, based on their history and experience.
  • 5 minutes: Participants create a grid with two axes—X & Y—with a ‘more-or-less of’ continuum for each factor. For example for the X-axis, if the number of new products is a critically uncertain factor, one end of an axis is a large number of new products and the other is no new products.  Repeat for the Y-factor and axis.  Four quadrants are created. See example below.
  • 10 minutes: Participants creatively name and write thumbnail scenarios for each of the quadrants.
  • 10 minutes: Participants brainstorm three strategies that would help them operate successfully in each.
  • 10 minutes: Participants sift results to identify which strategies are robust (strategies that can succeed in multiple quadrants) and which are hedging (strategies that can succeed in only one scenario but protect from a plausible calamity).
  • 10 minutes: Debrief.

How to adapt it

  • Build from this short session to a full-blown scenario-planning initiative.
  • For each scenario, invite small groups to dramatize a typical client interaction or product from the future that puts your strategies into play.

Tips

  • When brainstorming uncertainties, recall predictions-gone-wrong and events that caught you and others in your field unprepared.
  • Use 1-2-4-All in very short cycles for each step.
  • Have fun with naming each quadrant: song and book titles work nicely.
  • Sticky notes help with combining and recombining ideas.
  • Regardless of role, praise skilful people.

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