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Scenario Planning Versus Paradigm Planning in a Crisis

ISSUE 6 • September 2020

Dennie Palmer Wolf conducting a planning discussion
Dennie Palmer Wolf facilitating a planning discussion.

By Dr. Thomas Wolf

This blog post belongs to WolfBrown’s series, Navigating the Crisis. This series is a collection of research papers, blogs and announcements that critically examine the arts sector’s response to COVID-19. In this essay, Dr. Thomas Wolf reflects on his experiences working on scenario planning and paradigm planning with Play On Philly, as well as the importance of this planning during COVID-19.

The current pandemic has made it difficult for organizations to plan. There is so much uncertainty as to the course of the disease and its potential impact on the timing and nature of programming and operations. Under these circumstances, two kinds of planning need to occur—scenario planning and paradigm planning. 

Scenario Planning

Sound leadership during a crisis involves making wise decisions as to the best course of action while events are unfolding. But because things occur quickly and unpredictably, decisions and actions taken at one point may need to change at another. One way to address this issue, especially in the early stages of a crisis, is to engage in “scenario planning.” In the face of uncertainty, one simply plays out the implications of different alternatives. If X occurs, then we, the organization, will take the following actions, but if Y occurs, then we will take another set of actions. By being clear about when and how the organization will respond given different events (or scenarios), some of the uncertainty and surprise is taken out of the decision-making process in real time. This is especially true when the actions might result in layoffs or reductions in staff salaries or the elimination of programs on which constituents depend.

During this Covid-19 crisis, one of our clients—Play On Philly—held frequent emergency board meetings to consider different scenario action plans.  As conditions changed, a small team updated likely scenarios and shared their recommendations with board members, staff, constituents, and funders.  This leadership group displayed a calm but firm hand in steering the institution toward what appeared to be the most prudent course throughout the crisis, preserving, to the extent possible, the key mission-related activities of the organization and pre-pandemic staffing levels.

Like Play On Philly, organizations should consider developing a scenario chart that graphically and simply lays out alternative actions in relation to real world events. [A generic chart is offered below for a sample social service organization (the actual chart would also include back-up detail).]

Crisis Scenario Timeline

The Scenario Timeline

The chart above includes an implicit timeline but instead of actual dates, it describes triggers leading to certain action paths. Much uncertainty may still remain concerning when events will occur—events over which the organization and its leadership have no control. So the timeline replaces dates with descriptive phases and enhances their character by labeling them with colors—red, yellow, and green. In the red phase, very little can proceed because there are too many barriers in place. More is possible in the yellow phase as barriers are removed, and things proceed more rapidly in the green phase. The figure above shows what a portion of such a timeline might look like though many more categories (horizontal columns) can be added. 

Paradigm Planning

Scenario planning is an effective tool to help an organization get through a crisis. But it does not address longer-term issues. What will happen after the crisis? What will have changed and how should the organization respond? Looking ahead five years, how will the activities, staffing, finances, and organizational structure of the organization be different? How will the paradigm for programming and operations be transformed in what some call “the new normal?”

In a sense, paradigm planning is very much like long-range strategic planning which our client, Play On Philly, had done with us a couple of years before the pandemic hit. Even so, it was necessary to revisit assumptions in the plan. Their paradigm planning work is currently in process and is looking at the macro-environment; the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the organization; its staffing, finances, programs, and organizational capacity. Its leadership is developing a vision for the future with the operational and financial implications of achieving it. As always, the mission of the organization is the fundamental driver of the plan, but needs to be assessed and possibly modified if the changes that have been wrought by the crisis are substantial enough.

Since many organizations, like Play On Philly, already have a strategic plan, they must decide how much of it can be salvaged.  If the impact of the crisis is mild and little of substance changes in the community or in the organization, then paradigm planning may confirm much of what is already established in that plan.  The mission, vision, and goals may well remain as they were and with modest modifications, the organization can return to strategic plan implementation.  It is also possible, however, if the crisis has been severe and long lasting, that the strategic plan will be seriously changed or scrapped altogether and replaced so that there is a long-term aspiration and operational paradigm to which everyone in the organization can subscribe.

Paradigm planning often deals with future actions with which the organization does not have a lot of experience.  For example. arts organizations have become seriously focused on the extent to which programs will be delivered virtually in the future even after it is possible, post-pandemic, for large groups to congregate in person once again.  Virtual programming became essential during the pandemic and organizations scrambled to respond.  But many would acknowledge that the lack of adequate background research and preparation in the area of virtual programming led to less-than-stellar results and if virtual programming remains important in the future, organizations must adapt and improve their offerings. As paradigm planning increasingly acknowledges that virtual programming will represent a “new normal,” organizations must certainly assess the impact it will have on program offerings, staffing, infrastructure, budgeting and the like.  But at the same time, most will have to come up to speed quickly on how to do this new work well.

Rapid Prototyping

Indeed, this is one area where paradigm planning can become more complex than strategic planning.  Organizations may be forced to invent new systems and new approaches even as they are planning their implementation.  Borrowing a concept from other fields, they must engage in what is called “rapid prototyping,” empowering a planning group to act quickly and experiment with new ideas.  In the performing arts, much of the virtual content created during the pandemic proved inadequate.  Simply replicating what would normally be happening on a stage or in a school room with the same content delivered on a screen made for less-than-compelling watching, listening, and/or learning.  In addition, many small organizations came to realize that when it comes to virtual content, they could not compete with the presentations of major arts organizations that invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into programming utilizing sophisticated and expensive technology.

Rapid prototyping encourages organizations to experiment quickly with new ideas, getting immediate feedback from constituents, and it can be done by small organizations as well as large ones.  One interesting example in performing arts has been developed by Bay Chamber Concerts in Rockport, Maine, an organization with a budget of well under one million dollars. The organization had an on hand library of high-quality audio recordings of its concerts developed for radio broadcast over many decades. This was content that it already owned and to which it had rights.  The organization also was lucky to find itself in a community with many accomplished visual artists who were looking for ways to have their work seen more broadly, particularly when many galleries were closed during the pandemic.

What the organization has done is to create videos combining the artwork of local artists with the music from its audio archive for a compelling digitally native experience that can be seen below.

This particular video, which is approximately 50 minutes long and is intentionally well short of one of its in-person concerts, offers great variety.  It begins with a short series of photos from the organization’s history, followed by an introduction by the current Artistic Director, Manuel Bagorro.  Then the music begins with two masterworks by Bach and Mozart from the audio archive, each movement is combined with the work of a different local artist. The home-grown aspect of the presentation makes it feel unique and special.

Does it work?  Does it represent the future?  It is too early to tell but Bay Chamber Concerts is assessing the results as part of its planning efforts.  The work serves as an example of a small arts organization willing to experiment with changing the paradigm in a post-Covid-19 world.

This article was adapted from the sixth edition of Thomas Wolf’s Managing a Nonprofit Organization.