Scenario planning for fleet managers

William A. Ramsey
Vice President - Management, Fleet & Facilities
Bucher Willis & Ratliff Corp.
Kansas City, Missouri
Member, APWA Fleet Services Committee

If you could plan for the issues, trends, major projects, economic shifts, technology advances, environmental regulations and/or political developments which affect your organization, you would be in a position to influence the major decisions which affect your department. But most days, as fleet managers, you are caught in the day-to-day operations which need your attention. Some of you will be involved in strategic planning sessions where you will engage in a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) exercise. While strategic planning is a great tool, it does not always give you the broad vision or the "what ifs" that are always present. So what can you do on your own to leap into the future and consider alternative future histories? Try scenario planning.

What is scenario planning?
Scenario planning is a tool for imagining possible futures:

  • Learning by imagining the years ahead

  • Improving perception by creating possible outcomes in the future

  • A creative, forward-looking, open-ended search for patterns that might emerge in your community/organization/department

Why use scenario planning?

  • Improve the quality of your strategy-making process.

  • Create possible outcomes of the future.

  • Help the organization to realize that your future will look different from how you are today.

  • Imagine disruptive technology and regulations that might reshape service delivery and/or the mix of services provided.

  • Stimulate dialogue and creative thinking about the organization's future.

  • Simplify an avalanche of data into a limited number of possible states.

Each scenario tells a story or narrative that is easier for decision makers to grasp and can direct their attention to aspects and interactions that might otherwise be overlooked.

When should you use scenario planning?

  • Uncertainty is high relative to your ability to predict or adjust.

  • There are strong differences of opinion with multiple opinions having merit.

  • The organization/community is experiencing significant change or is about to.

  • The organization needs a common language and framework which it can use with decision makers for critical projects.

How do you use scenario planning?
The ideal scenario plan will have four divergent themes. Each of these themes is created from the scenario development process. The use of these themes is to help the organization realize there are more outcomes than what the group may have envisioned. If this is the case then it will help the decision-making process to refine the scope of a problem so that the solution is more inclusive of outcomes that will reflect these various themes. (Examples: high growth vs. stable growth; increased revenue vs. stagnant revenue)

Who is usually involved in the process?
In city/county government organizations it would typically include the chief administrative officer and department heads. Depending on the issue at hand it may include governing body members, planning committee members and/or stakeholders.

What's the process?
The typical process outline is as follows:

  • Define the scope of the problem and the number of years the scope will cover (10 to 20 usually).

  • Identify major stakeholders who have an interest in the issue and can influence the situation.

  • Identify known elements which affect the problem (what do we know we know?). These elements are certain no matter which scenario comes to pass.

  • Identify driving forces (can be also called trends). The driving forces are the elements that move the plot in a scenario. Trends such as politics, economy, technology, society, legal and regulatory are the basics which will create the driving forces of the future. Everyone must agree that the trends are long-term. Disagreement on any given trend will cause it to be listed as a critical uncertainty.

  • Develop a critical uncertainty list and then rank in order the driving forces and uncertainty elements. The top trends/uncertainties will then form an xy axis which will cause a two-by-two matrix.

  • Construct plausible scenarios based on the matrix. (Example: high growth vs. low growth is the "y" axis and high revenue vs. low revenue is the "x" axis; the scenarios would be built around high growth—high revenue vs. low growth, low revenue and in between).

  • The outcome of these scenarios is the assistance in decision making at a strategic level. This is NOT about forecasting the future, but trying to logically evaluate trends and factors that will affect the organization.

The end product is a written narrative of possible scenarios in the future. It is at this point that the scenarios provide a jumping off point in the organization. First, it will stimulate discussion on a strategic level about what your organization may need to prepare for. Second, it will help you "see" possible outcomes and what might need to happen to deal with them. If you use this process your organization should never be surprised in the future. Remember the process is specific to an issue or problem and has a long-term time horizon.

The advantage to using this process is that you can piecemeal the process and take it in small bites. Unlike the SWOT process where it may take several days, scenario planning is an ongoing process that is conducted by individuals doing research and then coming together to share the information. The scenario building part of the process can be done in half a day.

It is by no means easy, but it is a process that many organizations are now utilizing.

Bill Ramsey focuses on fleet management and facilities analysis, and public works operational reviews and planning, as a project manager. Highly experienced in the process of transforming an organization to a performance based-unit, he uses his 30 years of public sector experience to provide clients with right-sized and efficient operation solutions. As a project manager, Bill is responsible for several facets of the operations and planning process. A member of APWA's Fleet Services Committee and former member of the Nominating and Finance Committees, Bill can be reached at (816) 363-2696 or wramsey@bwrcorp.com.