Scenario Planning … Knowing When to Stop Digging

For many years, I carried an A4 hardback notebook around with me, jotting down thoughts, plans, meeting notes, action lists and, inevitably, random nonsense.  I have kept hold of all of them – the first dates back to 1989, and I stopped using them sometime in 2009.

I picked up one today, without looking at the date range, and turned to today’s date.  It was a note from 2007.  On a page, I mapped out three key scenarios for a project I was working on:

1) Things get better; we get on top of the issues we are having and the project returns to a normal course

2) Things stay as they are; we continue to struggle, the project likely drifts later and we will have some tough decisions to make soon

3) Things get worse; we don’t solve the issues, the plan slips significantly, we need more money etc.  We will need to make very big decisions very soon.

I was first taught this kind of scenario planning in 1991 or so.  I think, and I need to go and look in the right notebook, that the first scenarios I mapped out were for what was happening in the company I was working at, and whether I should stay. Events followed the “things get worse” path, in my eyes, and I decided to move on.

Planning like this forces you to look at different eventualities, ahead of time, and think how you could react to them.  That, in turn, allows you to think what you can do now to prevent such an eventuality unfolding, which could move you earlier from one path to another.  That could be the difference between a project succeeding and failing.

Alternatively, if you continue to follow the “things get worse” path and you can’t see a way to switch paths, you can start to make the case for why you need to stop, either completely (and shut it down), or partially (major rethink, switch in strategy etc).

What you shouldn’t do, though, is blindly follow down a path without thinking about what’s coming next and what impact it could have on your programme.  Expecting path 3 to magically improve and have things get better without taking any action is a sign that you need to stop digging and do something different.

The trouble with running projects and programmes is that it’s easy to become the chief ambulance driver – chasing after every new problem, ringing a bell loudly, busting past everyone so that you get to the problem first – but what you really need to do is look ahead, and anticipate the next wave of problems and opportunities so that you’re able to steer around them (problems) and capitalise on them (opportunities).

As Neil Gaiman (I believe) said, there are two kinds of authors, gardeners and architects.  The same is true for project and programme managers.

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