Unless you possess magical powers, it’s likely that you, like the rest of us, can’t predict the future. However, just because you can’t predict the future, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for the future. Scenario thinking helps teams effectively make assumptions about the future and the necessary changes required to prepare. As leaders notice trends or shifts in the environment, they can activate the plans discussed during scenario thinking exercises. The only way to calm uncertainties and move to action quickly is to plan for the unexpected before it occurs.


It’s common in organizations to have plans in place to deal with crisis and emergency situations. If you are a cruise operator you probably have plans in place for scenarios. Example scenarios may include the ship breaking down, a life-threatening emergency or a hurricane. When one of these foreseeable situations arises, a plan already exists that people can quickly activate. Crisis planning is similar to scenario thinking. However, when scenario thinking, we practice preparing for changes in our internal or external environments.

The purpose of scenario thinking goes beyond being proactive and having a plan in place. Uncertainty often causes anxiety and stress for employees, students and customers. Conversely, when we engage people in scenario planning activities we reduce their anxiety and fear of the unknown. Anticipating change reduces stress and allows people to think more clearly and make better decisions.


Scenario thinking or planning is a tool teams use to envision multiple future possibilities that could occur. These possibilities could be internal or external factors that force an organization to change the way it does business. For example, imagine if Blockbuster engaged its teams in scenario thinking exercises. Ift they did, they might have anticipated that movie rental services would move to an all-digital format. Thus, Blockbuster could have shifted to become an early adopter of that delivery model.

Scenario thinking considers potential what-ifs and engages people in a discussion around the implications of those situations. It encourages people to challenge their normal ways of thinking. Depart from the status quo and challenge your assumptions. What options can we explore? How will employees and the organization need to change? What is the best scenario based on what we are facing right now?


On an annual basis, bring relevant team members together to identify driving forces and trends that may cause change. After an initial analysis, leaders discuss potential scenarios the organization should anticipate. Try to prevent groupthink and confirmation bias from occurring. Set a minimum number of situations to explore before deciding which are most likely. Likewise, support healthy disagreement and exploration of alternative ideas. Use the following questions to apply scenario thinking in your organization:

Analyze the Current Environment

  • What driving forces may cause the organization to change? How do these affect the organization?
  • What trends are occurring within our organization that may require us to change?
  • What will our industry look like in five years?
  • How will technology impact the way we do business?
  • What changes will our customers expect from us?

Develop Scenarios

  • Review the answers to the questions in step one above.
  • Next, develop scenarios that could occur causing change within the organization or industry.

Refine Scenarios

  • What three scenarios are most likely?
  • What are the pros, cons and implications of each scenario?
  • How can we prepare for these outcomes?


Planning for the unexpected doesn’t have to stop with scenario thinking. Leaders can pass this information along to strategy and communication teams to continue outlining a response. Now if one of the forces causes disruption, you will have a plan ready and people can act quickly. Leaders will have information to guide decision making and teams will feel prepared.

Download the High-Level Scenario Thinking Tool template for an interactive version of this exercise.

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