April 12, 2020
Scenario Planning for Business Leaders Amid COVID-19
Scenario planning doesn’t need to be complicated, even in the toughest, unexpected moments
For business leaders and communications professionals working through the COVID-19 crisis, scenario planning has never been more important. But it’s also not all that difficult.
Adapted from military intelligence, the original scenario-planning method recognizes that many factors can combine in complex ways to create surprising outcomes. This often includes things that can be extremely difficult to predict, and such thinking is meant to help organizations prepare for otherwise unforeseen but profound shifts in the social, political or economic landscape.
If that sounds complicated, it doesn’t need to be. And for the less sweeping, but still consequential, crises that are likely to come your way, you can’t afford it to be.
Even if you’ve been through sophisticated scenario planning, unexpected events can still challenge your business and require you to think through and communicate decisions that you had not previously contemplated. Customers, employees and other stakeholders will turn to you, as a leader in your organization, in these pivotal moments for reassuring guidance, useful information, or a deserved explanation.
What would you say if an internal investigation uncovers malfeasance, or if it doesn’t? How do we announce the outcome of a lawsuit, whichever way it goes? How do we communicate the loss of operations or revenue resulting from the current pandemic? And most significantly, how would you communicate the loss of an employee’s life?
Issues like these need your hands-on management even while you are doing everything else that is part of your day-to-day job. That’s another reason why this process can’t be complicated. You need a fast, efficient method for thinking through the problem at hand and how you will respond to it. You need the comfort of knowing that you’ll have something to say when all eyes turn to you, even if you don’t have all the information or are waiting for another shoe to drop.
By asking the following questions, you and your management team should emerge after a few quick hours with a solid, proactive framework to address any of the possible outcomes of your looming crisis, preventing you from scrambling to catch up when it does finally hit.
- Objective – How do you want your organization to be perceived once the situation is resolved?
- Messages – What three things are most important for your audience to hear regardless of the outcome?
- Outcomes – What are all the possible outcomes of the crisis you are contemplating?
- Audience – Who will be impacted by these outcomes, and how? And who might be interested in these outcomes, but not impacted?
- Statement – What must we say to these audiences to achieve our objective?
There are some other things that should be considered during scenario planning:
- The best spokesperson is the person who has the best relationship with your audience, and you may need more than one if you are addressing multiple audiences.
- The best channel for your spokesperson – a press release, letter, a phone call, an email or tweet, etc. – is the one your audience expects you to use most often or is required by your regulator, if you have one.
- Murphy’s Law dictates that the members of your team who need to greenlight any statement before it is issued are usually the ones who can’t be reached. Identify alternate parties who can conduct the necessary reviews in a pinch.
- There may be third parties who will stand up and support your statement, so think about who they may be.
- Finally, when you’ve communicated your initial decision or response to the crisis, you may have to work through a separate scenario plan if the crisis continues to unfold.
This process works. We’ve used it a lot and know from experience that business leaders who can pause and think though the several possible outcomes of a pivotal moment and how it impacts their key stakeholders will be in a much stronger position to achieve their business objectives.