My colleague Richard and I are working with the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) on strategic planning.  Fran, the (relatively) new executive director of CAPSS, was very clear with us that she wants the process to be forward-thinking, high-leverage, and not constrained by the “typical” format of a strategic plan.  More specifically, she wants us to facilitate a scenario planning process.  Thus, I have had to do a lot of research on scenario planning.

To sum up: many organizations are much, much better than most educational institutions (schools and districts) at taking an adaptive rather than a technical approach to planning.  They make a highly calculated and intentional effort to break away from the confines of their existing mental models (“this is the way the world works, this is how it’s going to keep working”) and from cognitive biases(including, but not limited to, optimism bias, confirmation bias, the Lucretius effect).  Flaws in our reasoning are known as cognitive biases, and cognitive biases cause weaknesses in plans, and most cruelly, prevent us from seeing the flaws in our plans.  Smart humans, therefore, will operate proactively with the knowledge that they are limited by their mental models, overly optimistic attitudes, and inability to see their own blind spots.

Scenario planning is a methodology for thinking expansively about the future that may confront you, rather than the one you might hope for.  If you look at the results of an HBR search on scenario planning, you will notice that many of them are about staving off disaster, but scenario planning doesn’t have to be about predicting the worst that can happen.  It is a way of challenging our assumptions about the way the future will unfold.  In my office, we have a sign on the bulletin board that my colleague Kerry contributed that says, What if the opposite were true?  My bibliography for scenario planning is attached.  Not all the resources are about scenario planning per se, but they are all about helping us think more adroitly about the future.

Another methodology for decoupling decision making from prior assumptions is called red teaming: charging a group with challenging the thinking behind a plan.  So you should do that.  Attached is a one-pager on red teaming—yes, I’ve attached it before, along with this video—and feel free to contact me if you’re thinking of doing this, I’ll walk you through it.

I know I’m repeating myself but… as a coach and consultant, I frequently get the feeling that I am viewed just as the soft process person, a little flaky round the edges, not sufficiently serious.  A hippy chick.  This is, in fact, very far from the truth.  Nevertheless, just in case people have the wrong impression about me or about coaching, I am particularly happy when I can turn to undeniably serious sources to support ideas—I particularly love military sources, as what could be more serious?  The Red Team Handbook is a must-read for ALL leaders and I am truly ecstatic that the initial chapters are about what some people (but clearly not the Army) think of as soft skills, including self-awareness, listening, and cultural competence.

I had one of those all-consuming moments of insight on my sofa when I was working on this project (December 9th—it’s in my notes), under a blanket, with the snow getting heavier.  I was re-reading the Army’s Red Team Handbook, the part starting on page 65 about the Military Decision Making Process and the role of the Red Team at all stages of this process.  And I looked at the description of what a Read Team can do and I thought, that’s what I do!  A coach is a one-person Red Team!  Amen to that.

If you really wanted to get into scenario planning

Stevenson 2017 Pre-mortem and Red-Teaming

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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