Continuous Improvement, Strategic Services

Scenario planning: the power of “what if” thinking

Note: A version of this post appeared on hrexecutive.com in July 2022.

A good beginning makes a good end. 

Louis L’Amour

As we have noted in previous columns, most organizations recognize the need for change, with much of that change being driven by the need to update policies, processes, and systems to support new ways of working. What HR leaders struggle with more than identifying the need is understanding how to get started.

HR historically has struggled with strategy. In fact, in 2014 Harvard Business Review made the click-bait argument that strategy shouldn’t be HR’s job. Back in the real world, HR is often challenged with balancing administration and vision, and in many organizations the scales tend to tip more towards administration. However, with work continuing to evolve and with the focus shifting to a more rounded view of the employee experience, HR is called upon to solve for all manner of issues related to the strategic direction of an organization, including the response to broad socioeconomic, geopolitical, and cultural challenges. Ironically, HR’s ability to execute transactional work – traditionally an area where HR has excelled – has not always translated into successful outcomes.   

Transformations can be daunting. No matter how much of a mandate HR leadership possesses to make the necessary changes, the task is often an uphill battle as the playing field shifts from month to month (or even hour to hour). To help navigate this ever-evolving landscape, the best thing a transformation leader can do is spend enough time up front to build a solid plan. The advice to build a plan may seem counterintuitive, given the fact that I just spent the time to explain how difficult it is to execute transformation in a fluid landscape, but making the right kind of plan will put you in a position of strength to adapt to whatever the business throws at you.

PMBOK-sanctioned project plans and detailed timelines, while important, are not going to protect HR’s transformation efforts. To be truly successful, HR should focus on scenario-planning in both the early stages of transformation and throughout the process.  Put simply, scenario-planning means thinking through all the possible situations that may befall the program, a sort of pre-mortem to allow the team to anticipate potential roadblocks and brainstorm mitigation activities before panic and reactionism set in. It’s like a real-world game of “What if.”

  • What if, after your program budget was approved, the world changed and now your budget is at risk? What options would you consider? Would you cancel the program? Focus on efforts on elements that don’t require additional spending? What would that look like?
  • What if one of the key people of the transformation decides to leave? Is responsibility and oversight appropriately distributed on the project team? Do you have the bench strength to absorb the loss of key skillsets? Do you think a key person dependency is a good approach?
  • What if HR or organizational priorities shift? Are you prepared to apply prioritization criteria and accept the deprioritization of your transformation or elements therein? Are you able to reframe the transformation into smaller, incremental changes? How will you position the team to honestly assess the transformation’s priority throughout the process?
  • What if the business acquires another entity, divests a business unit, or is themselves acquired?  What if a new strategic plan emerges that accelerates or decelerates the timing and expected outcomes of the program?
  • What if your external technology, consulting, or change management partners experience some material change to their personnel, tooling, service, or support models? What if their performance and timeliness lags, SLAs are missed, or roadmap is delayed?

Learning to embrace “what if” scenario-planning can be a powerful way to regain a sense of control, even in the most volatile environment. Even if your scenarios don’t cover every single situation, they comprise a playbook from which you can either use as building blocks for your action plan or bolster your confidence to meet any challenges reality throws your way.

Scenario-planning is not sufficient on its own to ensure a successful transformation. What it does do is establish another foundation upon which all the other work can build. When combined with a robust stakeholder management and engagement model, a continuous improvement mindset, a technology-enabled design, and an understanding of the catalyst that got you to the starting line in the first place, the level of planning will help future-proof you and your project team against whatever comes your way. You might also be able to set your device aside, take a vacation, and prioritize your wellbeing without fear that you’ll be caught flat-footed when the universe throws a wrench into your transformation.

Written by:

  • Mary Faulkner

    A principal with IA, Mary has more than fifteen years of experience working within organizations undergoing HR transformation. At her core, Mary is a builder and a problem solver. Her HR experience includes operations, learning and development, leadership and organizational development, and performance management.


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