Imagining an Uncertain Future: Preparing for Health Care’s New Normal Through Scenario Planning

By The SHSMD Team posted 10 days ago


Scenario planning is a vital tool for building strategy in an environment full of uncertainty. It systematically builds possible futures in a way that prepares strategists for a range of potential outcomes and aligns work with the most important objectives.

Building Bridges by Imagining an Uncertain Future

From telemedicine adoption of less than one percent, to delivering all or most primary care virtually in a matter of weeks, health care has undergone unprecedented change, according to Holly Sullivan, senior director of strategic marketing at Spectrum Health. “COVID-19 has accelerated important debates about values, rights, the definition of health, the role of clinicians and the place of care. As we look ahead, we need to understand what health care might look like in the new normal and how we can envision and prepare for a world of great uncertainty.”

Scenario planning is a strategic foresight tool that enables participants to plan future strategy – building bridges between the choices we make today and the understanding of how they might turn out tomorrow. The objective is to foster a futures mindset – open to possibilities, prepared to adapt and able to change – then follow an iterative process to create scenarios.

The process involves:

  • Identifying critical decisions and uncertainties.
  • Imagining and inhabiting futures.
  • Isolating and implementing strategies.

Alicia Graham, managing director of experience transformation for health at Accenture, pointed out that this involves skills very familiar to marketers, communicators and planners. “Scenario planning is a form of storytelling that brings a human-centered approach to strategic planning. It creates an emotional connection to help people envision and act in a collaborative, flexible and innovative way.”

Focusing on What Matters Most

Today’s health care strategic planners need to consider a new range of plausible possibilities in addition to already unprecedented change in technology, expectations, medical discoveries, economics and regulations. For example:

  • How prepared are we for a persistent pandemic or a rush on available vaccines?
  • How have consumer realities, behaviors and mindsets changed for good?
  • How will we respond to multiple crises – at the same time?

Health care providers must leverage both divergent thinking to expand the universe of possibilities and convergent thinking to focus, refine and filter. Both kinds of thinking are necessary to uncover strategies for addressing the most challenging, relevant and plausible futures.

Sullivan noted, “Scenario planning is an extremely useful framework, helping us assert more control over our uncertain world by guiding our cross-functional team in identifying ranges of potential outcomes and impacts over the coming months. We plan responses and actions for each scenario and are better prepared and ready to proactively address current events rather than simply reacting to them. Also, by building awareness of what could happen, we are able to spot potential challenges that could be resolved before they occurred.”

“Strategic foresight is a process, not a moment. We want to empower people to build organizational momentum for new ways of thinking and bridge the gap between strategic and tactical decisions,” said Graham.

Establishing New Ways of Thinking and Doing

This blog post previews an upcoming interactive workshop, “Imagining an Uncertain Future: Preparing for Health Care’s New Normal through Scenario Planning,” from Alicia Graham, managing director of experience transformation for health at Accenture, and Holly Sullivan, senior director of strategic marketing at Spectrum Health, to be featured on October 26th as part of the SHSMD Connections Bytes virtual conference.

In the interactive workshop, Sullivan and Graham will guide health care strategists in marketing, sales, service, care, operations and beyond to explore how potential scenarios and decisions might affect their shared purpose and inform their specific responses. They will share real-world examples and introduce plausible and surprising possibilities to bring shape and meaning to strategic planning in the next two years.

Participants will receive a toolkit to establish scenario planning as a lasting, flexible process – including templates, tips and tricks for virtual and in-person environments.