Most organizations use a strategic planning process that includes
scenarios of what might happen in the future that would affect how
the organization operates. However, one weakness of these scenarios
is that they often fail to recognize how truly chaotic the world
can be. Therefore, when the world changes in an unexpected way (and
it will), the strategic plan is useless because it doesn't provide
any guidance on how to act.
One way to improve the strategic planning process is to consider
what I call wild cards, which are events that have a low
probability of taking place, but should they occur, will have a
profound effect on your business. Adding wild card scenarios to
your strategic planning process gives you the opportunity to
examine numerous possible futures and to think about how these
futures might affect the course your organization sets for itself.
It also helps the organization clarify and make explicit the
assumptions it is making about the future. Clarifying these
assumptions decreases the likelihood that the organization will be
blind to the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats
(SWOT) facing it.
While the wild card futures you predict may seem far-fetched, they
may, in fact, come to be. Think of the many changes that have
happened in the last 15 or so years, such as the breakup of the
Soviet Union, the mapping of the human genome, cloning, fiber
optics, 9/11, and consider how these events have influenced your
The best way to construct plausible wild card scenarios is to
examine trends such as demographics, technology, politics,
legislation, and the environment, and think about where those
trends might lead in 10 or 15 years. Start by asking yourself the
- What assumptions am I making about the future in the next 10 or
- What futures are most plausible?
- What future do I prefer?
- What wild cards could affect my preferred future?
Based upon the assumptions you make and the trends you think of,
create multiple scenarios such as:
- A business-as-usual scenario.
- An impact of technological breakthroughs scenario.
- A change in demographics scenario.
- A crisis scenario.
- A geopolitical reform scenario.
- A change to the natural environment scenario.
For each of these scenarios, consider:
1. What is happening in the larger world? Describe it.
2. What is happening in your business unit? How are you responding
to this scenario? Ask yourself:
Who are our customers?
Who are our stakeholders?
What risks will our organization and our business unit face in
3. What advantages and opportunities does this scenario present to
your organization and your business unit?
4. What strategies must you adapt to forward your organization's
mission and vision in this scenario?
5. What other wild card events could affect this scenario?
6. Looking at the entire system, what new kinds of marketing
partnerships and arrangements can you create in this scenario?
7. How can you adopt and change processes to create new markets?
8. Where are the hidden opportunities?
9. How do you choose to position the organization in this new
By examining wild card scenarios during the strategic planning
process, the organization will be ready when windows of opportunity
to create change occur. Over time, as employees become more skilled
at reading early warning signals, and, having discussed the many
possible effects of these signals, the organization will have a
clearer understanding of the decisions that need to be made that
will put the organization in a position to take advantage of
opportunities as they occur.
Thinking about the future in this fashion pays huge dividends.