One of the things that makes an adaptive planning process fundamentally different from other types of planning is the assumption that many different futures are possible and you need to be prepared for, or able to, adapt in response to what emerges.
In order to be prepared, it is important to take the time to explore the potential futures ahead. The forecasting techniques below are approaches to exploring the future.
In some ways, these techniques are not dramatically different from a strategic conversation focused on “what if” questions. They ask similar questions and benefit from the various types of expertise that one might want in a strategic conversation about the future. However, they do differ in one very important way: they are systematic, rigorous ways of examining the potential futures. They push the learning to another level, drawing on more than intuition surfaced in group dialogues. For that reason, they can be powerful tools for helping planning groups to take their process to the next level as well.
Scenario planning builds flexibility into a process by surfacing several possible futures and then exploring how decisions might play out under these different conditions. Specifically, scenario planning identifies major drivers of the future environment (social, technological, economic, political, or environmental) allowing planners to think about how to prepare for these possible contexts. It is a collaborative process in which the team determines which drivers are under their sphere of control, which are understood, and which are uncertain and constructs a range of possible futures by either:
- Grouping the most positive and most negative drivers and arraying them along an axis, or
- By selecting the two most important drivers, identifying a set of “states” for each, and then crossing them to create a matrix of possible futures.
In adaptive planning, having a description of multiple potential futures helps in thinking about the ways the strategy needs to be adaptive and what elements of the strategy will remain relevant regardless of the future that unfolds. Once you have your scenarios documented, you can spend time assessing what it will take to be successful in achieving the intended results of the work in each environment and even whether they are still the right results in all the environments. This may guide you to invest in specific approaches or capacities that are likely to be relevant in any scenario and ensuring you have resources set aside to deploy the approaches and capacities most relevant as different scenarios unfold.
Scenario mapping is ideally done with stakeholders who bring a range of perspectives and understanding about the problem and potential solutions and whose strategies to work on the problem differ in significant ways. This diversity decreases the risk of the scenarios being overly focused on a driver that is very relevant only to one definition of the problem or solution, but not universally relevant to the problem.
- For a more detailed but accessible look at scenario planning, including possible pitfalls and real-life examples, check out Future Scenarios: The Art of Storytelling, by Moya K Mason.
- For an example of a scenario map completed as part of an adaptive planning process, see The Future of Health Policy in Colorado. This example is documented in the Consumer Advocacy Funding Strategy case study in the Community Resources section.
The purpose of the Delphi Technique is to have experts come to a consensus about the most probable future without risking of groupthink or any one individual overly influencing the group. In addition to reaching a consensus about what the future may look like, the Delphi method has also been used to surface ideas about what the future should look like.
The process begins by having each leader independently map their vision of the future (interviews work well for this). Their collective responses are then summarized and the variations are called out. The summary goes back to the experts and they each reflect on it, revising their view of the future based on insights from others. All of their independent insights are again summarized and variations called out. In an ideal world, this back and forth continues a consensus view of the future emerges or the changes are no longer significant from one round to another although the process can also be stopped after a pre-defined cut off point (e.g. a set number of rounds).
The result of the Delphi Technique is a description of the future that integrates multiple perspectives and types of expertise. Unlike scenario mapping, it may or may not document multiple futures, but similar to scenario mapping, it pushes the thinking far past the intuitive knowledge we typically bring into a planning process or the biased understanding of talking to one or two experts at a time.
- Roberts Evaluation Prty Ltd provides a very nice description and how to for the Delphi Technique, focusing on the more qualitative style application of the technique.
- Better Evaluation provides a nice overview of when and why to use Delphi Technique, but focuses on the quantitative approach to the technique which has participants rank order and quantify what they believe is likely to happen in the future, rather than integrate the thinking across multiple participants qualitatively. We strongly encourage you to use the qualitative approach in forecasting for adaptive planning as the results are easier to use and more meaningful.
Most planning processes are focused on opportunities and we often forget to look at what could go wrong. Pre-mortems are a structured process for examining what we could do better by opening the door to the idea that a plan will fail and allowing for thinking about flaws that would otherwise have been ignored. They can be done in any pre-defined strategy and are particularly useful tools to assess the initial steps of a Strategic Roadmap.
Pre-mortems ask the question: “at the end of this plan, we did everything we said we were going to do, we kept our focus, and we could not have failed more spectacularly, so what went wrong?” The process then asks participants to work through three questions:
- What does failure look like?
- What went wrong along the way to reach such a disastrous outcome and why? What was going on in the internal and external environment?
- Given these risks of failure, what can we choose to do differently? How can we adapt our strategy to prevent those things from going wrong?
By being systematic, taking the time to go deep into the failure and find the drivers, and then identifying strategies to address each driver, pre-mortems can help plan for the worst case scenario in the future. Pre-mortems are best used in an adaptive planning process after the results have been documented, the environment explored and initial strategies are planned. At that point, there is enough specification of the strategy to investigate whether it is likely to be successful and refine it.
- Harvard Business Review has a description of how to Perform a Project Pre-mortem, including helpful examples. This resource is not focused on adaptive processes however, so don’t get sucked into the idea of believing you can predict the future. You can only predict some problematic drivers of a worst possible future and plan for how to address or prevent them if and when they become an issue.
When the word simulation is used in planning, it typically refers to data-driven analysis in specialized software packages to determine the trajectory a problem or issue will follow over time. For example, a simulation might be used to track the spread of disease or estimate movements of animal populations.
Simulations can also be done in settings that are more about how people and organizations working together on a problem will respond to changes. In this setting, they are a hypothetical version of a case study. Where case studies will explore in great depth how something unfolded in the past, a simulation sets up a description of what is happening and then asks participants to explore what might unfold when a specific action or event occurs in that setting – a challenge that arises, a new opportunity, or even just a new issue that comes up. Participants take the time to agree on the description of the context, often set a couple years out from the beginning of the strategy being planned, and then look in detail at how different actors might behave when the event occurs.
Simulations often focus on one or more of the factors below:
- Roles– what will specific actors do in a specific situation?
- Issues – what reactions will happen when a specific type of issue emerges?
- Constraints – what difficulties will arise and what responses are possible and likely?
- Opportunities – what opportunities might emerge and what responses are possible and likely?
For example, perhaps one of the major uncertainties in a planning process being undertaken by a large collaborative group is the extent to which funding for the work should be pursued collaboratively and housed with a lead organization versus each organization seeking separate funding for the activities they are implementing. To do a simulation to help plan around this issue, you would begin by documenting what participants envision their collaborative group will be doing in a year or two, after they have had time to work through differences and begin to take action together. You could highlight who is at the table, their level of engagement, and what the small wins they have had along the way.
The simulation would begin at the moment of a major event, such as granted large grant to the lead organization, who then has to re-grant to the partners. The participants in the simulation can either take on the roles of specific types of partners (e.g. small non-profits, government agencies) and describe how they would act or all participants can map out together how they think different types of groups would act. The simulation can be repeated for the alternative scenario of disbursing the funding through many different grants to different agencies.
Unfortunately, we do not have a good resource to guide you through designing simulations in the context of adaptive planning. If you know of one, please let us know! However, this article on Role Play/Simulations provides a how-to guide for setting up a simulation in an educational setting and much of the advice is relevant in more complex settings as well.