Scenario Planning: a strategic planning tool for Local Authorities

What is Scenario Thinking or Planning?

“The problem with the future is that it is different. If you are unable to think differently, the future will always arrive as a surprise.” Professor Gary Hamel

Scenarios are envisions of possible, thinkable futures and can be used effectively to ask better questions in a strategic planning context: …not whether, but WHAT IF…?

“Scenarios are thus the most powerful vehicles I know for challenging our ‘mental models’ about the world and lifting the ‘blinders’ that limit our creativity and resourcefulness”  Peter Scwartz, The Art of the Long View…

Scenario thinking or scenario planning can be particularly effective during times of accelerated change, greater complexity and genuine uncertainty, all characteristics of working in Local Authorities today.

“… cuts continue, reductions in budgets will be harder to identify and the impact on front-line services will increase. With efficiency savings already made, councils must now make difficult decisions on which services to keep and which to lose. On top of funding reductions, uncertainty and risk are also increasing…” CIPFA, 28th March 2013

Scenario thinking can help shape, influence and check strategies, but perhaps more importantly, can be used as a means of dealing with and facing calmly the turbulence in the system. By using the conceptual future as a safe space to explore and better understand a ‘messy’ and complex situation, it is possible to find means of framing it with a shared language and in a way that a group can take strategic action together.

How does it work?

Scenario thinking has been a key feature of the leadership development programmes for senior leaders in children’s services for a number of years and we have recently begun using this tool to work with wider groups of leaders from local authorities.  Scenario thinking is a group activity which encourages knowledge exchange and development of mutual deeper understanding of central issues important to the future of your organisation and specifically in our case, the public sector; using experienced facilitators from the Staff College, the goal is to produce scenarios that are not only different from ‘business as usual’ and, therefore, thought-provoking, but highly relevant to your strategic thinking.

It can be an effective tool to help you and your team to make sense of an increasingly complex and ambiguous world that often has contradictory forces at play. Use of scenario planning certainly won’t dispel all uncertainty, but it will help you to be better prepared to face an uncertain future that does not comply with the outcomes of conventional forecasting.

The offer

The Staff College has significant experience of working with senior leadership teams in local authorities and will work alongside with you to co-create a learning context that is bespoke to your needs. There are numerous sets of contexts where scenario planning can be particularly impactful, and you may be prompted to consider this type of activity if:

  • you need to create a new vision or direction of travel for the organisation or service within it
  • you are looking for a means of making sense of uncertainty and understanding the key drivers for change in a way which has a positive impact on your services
  • you need to create fresh momentum across the organisation and are looking for innovative ways of ‘telling a new story’

We will meet with you prior to undertaking any actual work to understand your motivations for the activity and take your guidance on how to best structure the time. We would typically recommend spending at least 24 hours with our experienced team in order to get the most out of tool, but we can design shorter or longer sessions if required. We have access to high quality facilities in Nottingham or can equally come to your premises to do the work.

Most importantly, any work we do will be grounded in driving forward the learning agenda on behalf of the organisation. We will work with you in a reflective space to consider the implications of the outputs from the scenario thinking, so you have a clear sense of how your insights can be incorporated into your strategies and plans.

What people have said

Real opportunity to think about the shape of the future and my place in it.
Very valuable space to step back and consider the bigger picture.
I find the facilitation really helpful and safe which enabled me to be honest and clear in a held environment. I thank you.
Very effective. Covered a significant amount of ground and dealt with some tough issues. Very productive.
Very open participation and all aspects related to the ‘job’. There were also real actions so can now get on and do.
Expectations exceeded. Reinforced that we want to all get to a better place and there are many green shoots. Welcomed the actions too – will move forward on audit tool and our public value.
Individual aspects of the learning; compounded by the emotional content and the skill in engagement by Anton and Alix, were just what is needed. Next steps are appropriate and the team have engaged with it and own it.
Timely & focused.
Thought provoking, helped to identify wider factors that will influence the future.

Below you will find examples of previous Scenario Planning Workshop Outcomes:

VSC Scenario Planning (July 2014)

VSC Scenario Planning (February 2015)

For further information, please contact the team via: or telephone 0161 826 9450.