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The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach in the era of Covid-19

Six ways in which the OSPA can be adapted to engage with strategy and policy-making in the emerging pandemic

How might the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach (OSPA) help to deal with the turbulence, uncertainty, novelty and ambiguity (or TUNA conditions as we call them) posed by Covid-19? After all it has been usefully deployed by many companies, scientific and inter-governmental organisations, and NGO’s. However, it has been noted that when scenarios on pandemics have been carried out, even in the recent past, they have not been picked up and converted into policy in time.

Why not? In our view, it has much to do with one of the core principles of the OSPA; that one must start the scenario planning initiative by determining the intended user and use. All too often this is not applied. If one fails to determine the user and use first, and there is no clear user nor use, the scenario set will be (unsurprisingly and unfortunately) useless and not acted upon.

The nature of the pandemic informs how scenario planning can be more effectively conducted in its midst - both to understand how things might be after it passes to prepare for and to assist recovery, and how to deal with it urgently as it unfolds. We identify six considerations to keep in mind.


1. Be clear on the distinction between scenario planning and contingency planning

Contingency planning typically involves mitigating risk – perhaps an extraordinary and dire risk.  One defines how significant a risk is, and then one develops a contingency plan in the case the risky situation unfolds. Buying a fire extinguisher or training an army, for example. This is different from scenario planning, which is not only concerned with identifying future risks, but also with looking for new opportunities as well as new collaborations and communities. Thus, scenario planning identifies potential events/developments that may require a contingency plan.


2. Pay particular attention to ‘anchoring’

Anchoring refers to making one’s own assessments, higher or lower, based upon previously presented external information. This is sometimes useful. However, the urgency of the pandemic emphasises a tendency towards ‘anchoring bias’ – where one’s mind is captured by the current situation. Scenario planning helps to counter anchoring by incorporating new, different voices and releasing the power of dissent to improve decision-making quality.


3. Stretch plausibility - panic is not just for the least secure

Well-off professionals in leadership positions have felt the uncertainty (TUNA) directly in their own experience of the pandemic. So the plausibility of any given scenario set can now be stretched and made more challenging – and thus more insightful and more useful – than would have been the case even just a couple of weeks ago.


4. Consider shorter time horizons - change has changed

We are now very aware of non-linear change and how quickly exponential change unfolds. This means that the longer term has shrunk; and scenarios can be done with shorter time horizons. Considering the present from a small set of  imaginary points of view  temporally situated a few weeks hence can make a significant difference, and that difference in perspective is what makes the scenario set so useful.


5. Move online and adapt the duration of sessions

 As people are isolated, the scenario set will be produced online, with sessions redesigned and day-long workshops shortened. More iterations of the scenario set are to be expected.


6. TUNA is very clearly here, so iterate more often

Scenarios have to be made more immediately useful and – as a result – will be more iterative, so that today’s version informs today’s actions, and next week’s version of the scenarios informs next week’s actions, etc.


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