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Preparing for What We Can't Predict: Using Scenario Planning to Support L&D Investment Decisions

Originally published April 2021 by Chief Learning Officer.

A year of pandemic and economic and social disruption firmly established learning and development as a key enabler of organizational resilience, recovery, and renewal amidst uncertainty. With agility and fortitude, L&D:

  • Pivoted to virtual to engage anxious learners.
  • Helped the business stay engaged with customers, distributors, and suppliers, remotely.
  • Recognized the need for investments in mental health and self-care.
  • Doubled down on developing organizational resilience.

Hard-earned capabilities, built over time by forward-looking L&D leaders, enabled those teams to step up and fill unexpected needs during a critical time. These capabilities were manifest — to the extent that L&D already had invested in virtual capability and digital learning enablement; to the extent that L&D had developed the right channels to and relationships with the business; to the extent that L&D’s prior efforts to develop “soft skills” enhanced organizational resilience and sustained performance.

L&D leaders face myriad challenges, and some tough choices to make, as we experience the next stage of what this pandemic has wrought — and foresee the beginning of the end of a prolonged period of isolation and economic dislocation. With constrained resources, how do we meet the real and current needs of the business, while preparing for what may lie head? Scenario planning can help L&D anticipate, recognize, and make choices about how mitigate some risks and capitalize on some opportunities. The idea is not to predict, but to prepare for, change.

Scenario planning can be handy tool for answering some of the very real doubts swirling in the minds of learning leaders at a time like this. It’s easy to be paralyzed by the inherent unpredictability of the near and medium term — all the “What ifs?” What if we invest more in virtual training technology, then everyone opts for face-to-face? What happens if — after we develop new curricula around empathy and inclusion, and invest in self-care and mental health — our budgets then get slashed? What if we ramp up our internal capabilities to deliver training, only to face significant headcount reductions due to market conditions?

The scenario planning process starts with an understanding of the situation and the environment. Define the current state: Who are the stakeholders, what are the competing priorities, where are the possible land mines? Then define the variables most likely to impact the outcomes we are focused on. We can, for example, anticipate that headcount, budgets, and the ability to commit resources will be impacted by an economic downturn. Some business models will be permanently disrupted — but which, and how? What will the work look like, domestically and across the globe, as the pandemic starts to recede? How will civil society and body politic respond, in the US and elsewhere?

Those variables enable us to create possible scenarios to explore. For our Winter 2021 Learning Lab, which consisted of a scenario planning workshop with a virtual community of L&D leaders, we created more than 80 potential L&D scenarios based on four variables. But not all those scenarios are equally plausible, and neither do they lead to significantly different consequences and choices. (We whittled ours down to four that seemed most fruitful to explore in a 90-minute session.)


Figure 1 — Four scenarios considered during Vantage Partner’s scenario planning session, based on two L&D-centric variables and two related to the business at large. Source: Vantage Partners

Then, as we did in our session, further test, assess, and refine your scenarios. Employ other tools, as useful, for further analysis — war gaming can anticipate the response of others; decision trees and cost-benefit analysis illuminate the implications of our choices; contingency analysis can help manage risks and seize opportunities caused by external impacts.

The group of L&D leaders participating in our scenario planning workshop hailed from a dozen industries, and from across the US, Europe, and southeast Asia. We broke them into small groups to discuss the different scenarios, then reconvened to share strategies for risk mitigation — and for capitalizing on opportunities. Even with this diversity of participants, a few “dominant” strategies surfaced when we looked across the analysis of each scenario. (Dominant strategies are those that seem worth pursuing regardless of which scenario actually comes to pass and are indicative of investments worth making even with significant uncertainty.)

Leadership engagement — not just in defining requirements and budgets, but their presence and role in talent development — rose to the top of the list. When attention spans are limited and distraction factors are high, it speaks volumes to see leaders directly involved in learning. Learning also can be a crucial enabler for the top of the house: “Let senior leaders know they can speed-dial us and have that one-on-one conversation,” noted one L&D leader in our session.

Flexibility also came to the forefront. That’s not about “keeping our powder dry until we know.” Rather, in these scenarios enabling flexibility meant investing in hybrid delivery channels and opting for more bite-sized training—which one of our discussion groups considered a silver lining in the shift to virtual.

Creating more digestible chunks to learn relates to another dominant strategy our group discussed: Improving our capabilities to engage learners, even in the absence of traditional “high touch” opportunities. During the pandemic, L&D stepped up around mental health; participants talked about IT groups that had sent out tech-related “care packages” and how Marketing could help by turning some of its capabilities internally. It’s crucial to continue exploring how to reach individual learners and engage and coach teams in new ways.

We can’t afford to do everything, yet how do you handle the good ideas that aren’t your top priorities — but you don’t want to discard, either? “Take the first few steps along a path,” suggested one learning executive. “Put a better plan in place at an outline level. Park the plan until needed and then you are one step ahead at low cost.”

Uncertainty can’t mean “we do nothing until we know.” By then, it’s too late to build what we needed to have to respond to the change. Instead, using a tool such as scenario planning, L&D leaders can anticipate and consider what we would do if X or Y came to pass, and what enablers or capabilities would be required to mitigate the worst and optimize the best of that situation. We then prioritize among those anticipatory capabilities, asking whether we would regret having invested in them if a particular scenario didn’t come to pass.

We are sure to find more than enough “no regret” investments to make — ones that will leave us better prepared for whatever comes our way.

Danny Ertel, a founding partner at Vantage Partners, is a noted author, speaker, teacher, and expert in negotiation, relationship management, and organizational transformation. He helps clients build strategies, capabilities, and skills for better collaboration across internal organizational boundaries and with external partners. His recent articles include “What’s Your Negotiation Strategy?” appearing in Harvard Business Review and a five-article series in Vantage’s “Soft Skills, Adaptive Leaders” compendium.


Organizational Effectiveness, Blog