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The way of the scenario

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The American Red Cross is no stranger to crises and disasters. When things go bad, it is often among the first organizations on the front lines lending assistance.

Yet, last year, during the height of the pandemic, Michael Kleeman of the American Red Cross kept thinking a different approach was needed. In a recent report, he is quoted as reflecting at the time, “We’re so focused on what we have to do today to respond to the COVID pandemic that we don’t have time to think twelve-to-eighteen months down the road. But someone has to.” That’s when he turned to The Millennium Project for help.

Jerome Glenn, CEO of The Millennium Project, and one of the world’s top strategists, had to step back for a moment, since the vast majority of his body of work focuses on the long term. In fact, Paul Saffo, his colleague at The Millennium Project, studies time horizons spanning tens of thousands to billions of years. Never ones to pass up an opportunity, especially given the turmoil the world was (and still is) going through, they accepted the challenge.

The objective wasn’t to generate a forecast. In today’s world, planning based solely on prediction is akin to sports betting and stock market timing—and just as risky. Rather, this situation, as well as similar ones, called for scenario planning, in which an organization prepares for a variety of possible futures.

Glenn quickly assembled a team of fellow strategists and went to work, taking their tried-and-proven long-term scenario planning methodology and repurposing it for the short to intermediate term. To keep things simple, they generated a set of 18-month COVID-19 scenarios with three possible outcomes: 1) status quo (things stay the same), 2) worst case (things go really bad), and 3) best case (things turn around and life is good again). In other words, plan for the worst and hope for the best.

New twist on an old technique: Real-Time Delphi

The Delphi technique has long served as a popular scenario-planning tool. Developed in the 1950s by the RAND Corp., it involves collecting the viewpoints of a diverse group of experts from a variety of disciplines. These are aggregated and fed back to the group, which can then refine the original inputs. The process repeats, sometimes over a period of several months, until a consensus emerges. This worked well in slow-changing environments, but has become less effective in recent years, especially in crisis situations in which conditions, assumptions, and other variables are changing faster than the group is able to respond.

Real-Time Delphi, however, uses online collaboration technology to close the time and distance gaps. Instead of a sequential process, participants can modify their inputs the instant they see inputs entered by others, who, in turn, get to refine their inputs in a continuous, iterative cycle.

Moving the process online greatly increases the number of experts that can be included. For the COVID-19 scenarios, The Millennium Project drew upon the expertise of more than 250 medical doctors, public health officials, emergency relief staff, economists, and futurists from around the world. Each of the three scenarios covered three main areas of impact: 1) health and medical (testing and contact tracing, vaccines, and treatments), 2) social well-being (leadership, economic security, and attitude), and 3) economics (business, finance, and employment).

The scenarios were rich in cause-effect links. Inputs were both quantitative and qualitative, which provided a set of coherent, integrated, and holistic views. The end result was a timelier and more comprehensive output product than would have been possible under traditional Delphi.

You can review the findings of the three scenarios at www.millennium-project.org/covid-19. In addition to helping organizations such as the Red Cross, the Peace Corps, and the National Institutes of Health, the effort generated numerous insights and lessons that will prove extremely useful to any organization in planning for and responding to future crises. 

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