Scenario Planning and Strategic Thinking

The opportunities and challenges we face in the future depend greatly on what is happening long term and outside our immediate environment: in society, politics, technology, economy, and environment, etc. We can’t predict with any certainty where all of those trends will lead. We can, however, imagine several plausible options for the future and shape our actions today so that we can  be effective under a wide variety of future conditions. We can, in other words, plan our actions with foresight, even in times of great uncertainty.

Scenario planning is a tool for operating with foresight. Originally developed after World War II by the military to increase preparedness and adaptability, scenario planning spread to the corporate sector, and only recently to the nonprofit sector. It has historically been a particularly useful tool for long-term collaborative projects.

Unlike traditional strategic planning in which organizations or community seek to define and detail actions they can control, scenario planning builds on identifying, and reacting to, key forces both known and unknown, that are outside the control of one’s organization or community. In other words, it works from the outside-in (from uncontrollable to controllable) rather than from inside-out (goals, strategies, contingencies).

Scenario planning results in strategies for action that can be successful under multiple alternative futures. It also has an element of storytelling that facilitates communication and ongoing adaptation of actions as future trends play out.

A scenario planning process addresses the following questions:

  • What is the key question or issue facing us?
  • What are the driving forces shaping our options around this issue? (key trends and key uncertainties)
  • What are some options for how the future might plausibly unfold? (a matrix of possibilities)
  • What would each future mean for our organization and community? (narrative descriptions of each possibility, with the preferred scenario identified)
  • What scenario do we want to see unfold, and how can we influence that by our actions today? (What is our preferred scenario?)
  • What should we do to be successful no matter what the future brings? (Strategies and risk assessment)
  • How will we know which scenario is actually unfolding, so that we can adjust actions? (indicators of direction)

Write to Know Consulting facilitates and trains for scenario planning processes. Here is a slide presentation from a past Write to Know workshop on this topic.


The Art of the Long View, Peter Schwartz, Doubleday, 1991

This is the classic book on scenario planning: its history and how it can be used.

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (revised), Peter Senge, Currency. 2006

This is a great resource for nonprofits in general: the section on systems thinking is very relevant for scenario planning.

The Futures Game David Beurle, Innovative Leadership Australia

This set of interactive board games is a great introduction to the power of scenario thinking for diverse groups. Developed by a trusted colleague of mine, it has been used successfully across in communities across the U.S., Canada and Australia.

How to Build Scenarios: Planning for “long fuse, big bang” problems in an era of uncertainty, Lawrence Wilkinson, Wired: Special Edition “Scenarios: The future of the Future, 1995.

This article provides a succinct example of a real world scenario matrix.

The Mont Fleur Scenarios, Adam Kahane, Deeper News, Global Business Network, 2002

This tells the story of how scenario planning was used to build shared vision and action in post-apartheid South Africa.

Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation (2nd edition), Kees VenderHeijden, John Wiley and Sons, Ltd 2005

This is another classic in the field that focuses on how scenario thinking and scenario planning can help groups learn and develop new “mental models” of what is possible.

Scenario Planning: The Link between Future and Strategy (revised edition), Mats Lindgren and Hans Bandhold, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009

This book includes many illustrations of the scenario planning process, and also focuses on how scenario planning and strategic planning are connected.

Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations, Third Edition, John M. Bryson, Jossey-Bass, 2004

This gives a thorough overview of current practice in strategic planning with many examples. It is particularly helpful in describing various options for an effective process.

What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Non-profits, Diane Scearce, Katherine Fulton, and the Global Business Network, 2004

The whole Global Business network website is full of useful articles and case studies related to scenario planning and futures visioning. This free document is very useful for applying scenario planning principles to the nonprofit world.