“The team is really uncomfortable with the idea of looking at scenarios,” is one of the most common things I’m hearing right now. “There’s so much uncertainty, so many moving parts, we can’t even decide what scenarios to look at.”
There’s an old adage that perfectionism kills progress, that until we can get something exactly right we can’t move on to what comes next.
It sits right alongside the “analysis paralysis” aphorism: that we shouldn’t make a decision until we know all the facts, irrespective of the knowledge, deep down, that the only time we know all the facts is when it’s too late.
You don’t wait for a fire to happen so you can see exactly where it starts and how fast it spreads before you start writing your fire contingency plan.
For most charities, enormous challenges lie ahead, and for some those challenges will be existential. A significant number of charities will fail in the next 12 months.
But failure is not inevitable. The more we understand those potential challenges, and the more willing we are to think the unthinkable – closures, mergers, fundamental changes to the model, entirely different approaches and so on – the more options we can create and explore to address them.
And, crucially, the more time we can buy for ourselves to prepare. The more clarity we can put around the last safe date to make the call on those options, the more chance there is that we can find and navigate a route, whereby somehow, in some shape or form, those who rely upon us can continue to get the help they need.
There is a fundamental difference between a forecast and a scenario. A forecast is what we reasonably expect to happen, within some margin of error.
It’s a tool to help build plans. It gives a degree of comfort that we have a good idea of what’s coming.
Conversely, a scenario is a provocative picture of a possible future. It’s a tool to help build options that you hope never to use, but that could metaphorically save your life someday.
It exists to create discomfort, to make you think, to generate more radical ideas and solutions, to mentally prepare you for the possibility that some parts of that scenario might eventually happen.
Right now, the degree of uncertainty renders most forecasts pretty useless, so we urgently need to start looking at some deeply uncomfortable scenarios instead, scenarios we don’t know will happen but might.
And we need to fully engage with them and their implications, and to ask the simple questions: what would we do in that situation? What would we wish we had done a few months ago had we suspected this might happen?
You might have a bunch of services you can’t operate under lockdown. It’s frustrating for the team and possibly damaging for the people you’d usually help, but you’re furloughing staff, they’re still being paid and the decision is out of your hands.
What happens when lockdown ends? When the furlough payments are pulled because we can “all go back to work”, but the distancing restrictions mean you can’t fill your classrooms, your services or your cafés to a viable capacity, or work hands-on, or in enclosed environments?
What happens when everyone needs to be tested on a weekly basis and isolated with no notice if the test comes back positive? When we all have to instantly move back to more restrictions because of fears about a second wave?
Those scenarios might not all happen, but if they did, what would you do? What preparation would you wish you’d begun earlier, had you seen it coming?
And what events or circumstances would trigger you to execute those options in time to land them properly?
The ultimate question about scenario planning is this: would you rather feel the heat now, invest in extinguishers and test out your evacuation drill? Or would you prefer to take the chance that the real heat will never come, and risk that it will spark into life when you least expect it and are least prepared to handle it?
There is never a good time to look at this stuff. But neither will there be any time soon when things magically become clear, and there will certainly never be a better time to ask these uncomfortable questions than right now, while you’ve still got time to find the answers.
Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting