Planning for the Unplannable

 Profile image of Steve Lobley From Spring Leadership

Steve Lobley

I remember always being curious why business leaders and their businesses didn’t grow and develop as effectively as they could – and in line with their stated ambitions. It was a great puzzle – despite knowing exactly what to do, nine times out of ten they couldn’t make the changes needed or make the right decisions to truly achieve the step changes required. It led me to the mantra from the Chinese Proverb ‘it’s not the knowing that’s difficult, it’s the doing’ – because THAT is really what it’s all about after all…

And as a result I reshaped my career from business adviser and mentor to launch myself fully into the world of coaching. My 30+ years in business from a shift manager in a textile mill to MD of a £15M business in the corporate world allowed me a unique perspective on the challenges people were facing, and with loads of experience on how to address them. 

 “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen”


The month is January. The year 2020. Reports emerge from China about a new flu-like virus that threatens to sweep the globe.

‘It probably won’t come to anything’, we think.

The month is February. The year 2020. The virus reaches Europe, the situation in Italy becomes concerning. We begin to see cases in the UK.

‘Perhaps we need to keep an eye on this’, we think.

The month is March. The year 2020. Countries are locked down, planes grounded, businesses thrown into uncertainty, and the world as we know it comes to a grinding halt.

‘This is more like chaos management than crisis management’

You don’t need me to tell you these are challenging times. There is no blueprint for managing a business through the kind of environment we’re currently seeing. One that is completely out of our control, one that changes rapidly on an almost daily basis, with so many unknowns it’s almost impossible to model. Not to mention one that has such an impact on a personal level as well as a professional one.

So in the absence of being able to plan against a background of anything concrete, what are we left with?

Scenario planning

In a recent article on LinkedIn, I suggested that in order to Make forward planning easier to think about, we should break it down into more manageable ‘chunks’ or Horizons which allow us to dig a little deeper and focus better, rather than risk becoming overwhelmed by the enormity that is the ‘whole’.

The next step on from this is scenario planning to allow you to systematically explore what the future of your organisation might look like based on different versions of ‘reality’. It allows you to get ahead of the game by putting an action plan in place for each potential outcome of a given situation.

Of course in a highly volatile situation, this becomes more of a challenge, but if you take the pressure off by not trying to guess the outcome ‘correctly’, and view this more as an exercise of working through the possible outcomes this is still a highly valuable tool.

This isn’t about predicting the future. It’s about understanding your organisation’s ability to react no matter what the future throws at you. It’s about removing the initial planning paralysis you’re faced with and providing a structure that offers a route forward.

Where to start?

There are many great descriptions of scenario planning techniques on the internet.

Below you’ll find an interactive mindmap we’ve prepared from an article by Andrew Neitlich at the Center for Executive Coaching. The diagram is a summary of one process you could work through. It’s a useful step by step guide that will help you look at options, build plans, identify action points, and ultimately find a positive way forward.

This is not a quick process, and it shouldn’t be one that prevents you from carrying on doing the ‘do’. And it shouldn’t be done in isolation either. Input from your senior management team is vital to gain different perspectives and insights.

In the pre-March 2020 world, we’d have suggested booking out a meeting room for a few hours and gathering around a whiteboard to map out some scenarios in a systematic way, but in this new world we live in you’ll need to put some of your newly acquired virtual team working skills to the test. Click through this process below and see where you can get to.

To interact with the diagram and learn more about the stages involved, click on it and then use the expand buttons on the right-hand side. And remember you should continue to review the situation as it unfolds and monitor your scenarios and plans on a regular basis.

Scenario Planning Steps


If you’d like to get your hands on a copy of this Scenario Planning process drop us an email and we’ll send one over.