Applying the principles of scenario planning to crisis response

Scenario planning has a central role to play in crisis management. In fact, it is central to what distinguishes a crisis management team from operational emergency response teams. Once it has established control over the incident response, the role of a crisis management team is to ask itself the bigger picture questions pertaining to the realm of scenario planning. It needs to: 

  • Broaden thinking: step back, think high level, check and challenge assumptions 
  • Anticipate: where could this go?
  • Explore consequences: what could this mean? Including how one decision or action might influence another 
  • Mitigate: what can we do to mitigate impacts?
  • Prepare: what can we do to prepare, be on the front foot? 

This, in part, is what makes a crisis management team strategic – focusing on the bigger picture, anticipating and minimizing potential impacts. 

Here are a few tips to consider with regards to crisis scenario planning. 

1. Appoint a sub-team

Broadening thinking under pressure is best done with a wide range of perspectives and experience represented. But if you give everyone a seat at the table and simply brainstorm issues, the discussion can quickly get out of hand.

Scenario planning for crisis is a role in itself, someone able to step back from the coalface response or people management of the situation, but being fed information and updates from those colleagues. It’s hard for a crisis leader to develop scenarios: they need to be able to direct decision-making, and will often have a strong personality or authority position that can limit the feedback they hear and take on board.

Your scenario planners need the headspace to see the bigger picture, be open to challenge while actively gathering new information, and have the respect of the wider team when they present back analysis of scenarios and consequences to guide the decisions of crisis leaders.

2. Focus on worst and most-likely cases

Under time pressure, focus on the scenarios which present the strongest challenge to your team: the worst case in terms of potential harm (to people, assets, reputation etc) and the case you estimate is most likely.

Whereas in long-term scenario planning, the key is to avoid falling into the trap of attempting to predict the far future, in a crisis you have a clearer picture of what those potential situations and consequences might be. Focus on those two cases and you’ll have a line of thinking which doesn’t underestimate how bad things may get, and one which helps you align your resources and planning to what’s most likely to be needed. 

3. Use a simple template

There are lots of templates out there to help you work through scenario planning considerations. Think about what would work best for your team and develop a template in ‘peacetime’, which is easy to use and can be quickly picked up in a crisis situation. Make sure you test it with your team as part of any crisis response training or exercises. 

Factors to consider, for both the worst and most likely cases, include: 

  • Triggers and escalation factors: how would this scenario come about
  • Impact: what would this scenario mean for the organization (think short, mid and long term) 
  • Mitigation measures: what can we do to minimize potential impacts 
  • Response strategy: what would our response strategy be in this scenario  
  • Preparedness: what can we do to prepare now (e.g. draft messaging, statements, stakeholder engagement plans, put additional resource on stand-by, etc.) 

Combined with good decision-making, good communication and good stakeholder management, scenario planning is central to enabling the crisis management team to achieve one of its overarching objectives: minimizing the impact of the crisis on the organization.

Download this free resource: Scenario Planning Grid

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