Episode 133 – Scenario Planning – Disaster Proof your Projects

Episode #133
Original Air Date: 07.19.2021

37 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Lance Mortlock

How can you prepare for an unexpected challenge? How do you plan for something you can't predict? Strategist Lance Mortlock demonstrates how scenario planning can help identify risks and expose vulnerabilities. Lance offers practical steps so that project managers can be better prepared by strategically incorporating scenario planning into project planning.

Take a listen as Lance walks us through the six steps of the planning process described in his book, Disaster Proof: Scenario Planning for a Post Pandemic Future. Lance gives recognizable examples of the successful implementation of scenario planning and how this has impacted projects. We also discuss the use of helpful tools, such as Porter’s Five Forces, and PESTEL analysis of external forces, and how these tools and techniques can be used to bolster your scenario planning.

Finally, Lance offers insight into how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used in scenario planning to examine vast volumes of information and take strategic planning to a new level.

As a Senior Strategy Partner with Ernst & Young, Lance has provided management consulting services on +150 projects to more than 60 clients in 11 countries. Lance has had the opportunity to work with the C-suite at leading national and international oil and gas, power and utility, mining, manufacturing, aerospace, infrastructure, government, and public sector organizations. Lance has an MBA from Cardiff Business School, is a Certified Management Consultant, a Certified Change Management Professional, a Certified Six Sigma Black Belt, and a Project Management Professional. Lance completed a LEAD certificate in Corporate Innovation at Stanford Graduate School of Business, advanced strategy at INSEAD, and an AI certificate from MIT.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"With storytelling, we talked earlier about how project managers take their discipline to the next level. There’s the basics of what’s expected. But the truly great project manager leaders again are using the different tools out there like scenarios, like the power of storytelling, to create a more compelling vision of what the future could look like."

- Lance Mortlock

"...if you’ve got good plans in place, you’re going to react and adapt to that particular signal. ... So you’re constantly, just like on a project, you’re monitoring, controlling the different signals of progress on a project or risks that might be playing out and becoming issues, and other key signals that tell you whether you’re realizing the benefits that are important to your project or program.

- Lance Mortlock

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How do you plan for something you can’t predict? Strategist Lance Mortlock demonstrates how scenariolanning can help identify risks and expose vulnerabilities. Listen in for practical steps so that projectmanagers can be better prepared by strategically incorporating scenario planning into project planning.

Table of Contents

02:04 … Writing the Book: Disaster Proof
03:41 … What is Scenario Planning?
07:09 … Examples of Scenario Planning Implementation
11:37 … Essential Questions for Scenario Planning
11:45 … Step 1: Defining Scope
14:38 … Step 2: Explore Environment
16:32 … PESTEL
18:16 … Porter’s Five Forces
21:25 … Step 3: Analyze Trends, Risks, and Uncertainties
22:21 … Step 4: Build Scenarios and Signposts
24:45 … Storytelling
27:05 … Step 5: Confirm Scenarios and Stress Test
29:41 … Step 6: Monitor Signposts and Execute Strategies
31:40 … Applying AI in Scenario Planning
35:04 … Connect with Lance
36:27 … Closing

LANCE MORTLOCK:  With storytelling, we talked earlier about how project managers take their discipline to the next level.  There’s the basics of what’s expected.  But the truly great project manager leaders again are using the different tools out there like scenarios, like the power of storytelling, to create a more compelling vision of what the future could look like.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and with me in the studio is Bill Yates.  I just want to thank our listeners who have reached out to us and leave comments on our website or social media.  We always like hearing from you. We appreciate your positive ratings on Apple Podcast or whichever podcast listening app you use.

So today we’re talking with Lance Mortlock.  Lance is a senior strategy partner with Ernst & Young. And he’s provided management consulting services on over 150 projects, to more than 60 clients in 11 countries.  The topic of our conversation today is based on his book, “Disaster Proof:  Scenario Planning for Post-Pandemic Future”.  And Bill and I both really enjoyed reading this book.  This was very interesting, talking about how you plan for something you can’t predict.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah, the uncertainty.  None of us project managers like uncertainty.  Yeah, Lance has written a brilliant book.  Okay, this is not basic project management stuff.  This is taking it to another level.  Lance’s explanation of scenario planning is spot-on.  The six steps he’s going to talk through with us are so practical and I think will resonate with the listeners.  These are some practical steps that we can use as we look at those tough questions that sponsors and customers come to us where they want us to look in the crystal ball and predict the future.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Lance, welcome to Manage This.  We are so grateful to you for being our guest today.

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Thanks for having me.  Looking forward to it.

Writing the Book: Disaster Proof

WENDY GROUNDS:  We’re talking about your book, “Disaster Proof:  Scenario Planning for Post-Pandemic Future”.  And my question is, did you already have this book in the works prior to 2020?  Did you write it as the pandemic emerged, or were you already on this project?

LANCE MORTLOCK:  I have been writing for quite a bit in a more serious way and professionally for about 10 years. You know, ever since I joined Ernst & Young.  And I’ve been writing over the years about resilience, business resilience, around continuous improvement, different topics around strategy and integrated planning.  And really in, I guess, two years ago I started to think, well, I’ve done all this writing.  I’ve explored all these topics.  There’s a tremendous opportunity to kind of bring these topics together in an integrated way.  So I started to think about that and work on that two years ago.

And then I would say a year ago, when we got hit with COVID, it really came to light for me that future thinking in organizations is just so important.  And so while the book is positioned and framed around this post-pandemic future and positioned around COVID, that’s certainly not the primary emphasis.  It’s much broader than that.  So it’s been a multiyear journey, and really a two-year journey specifically writing the book; and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, you know. Particularly in the last year, getting it over the line, which I finally did.

What is Scenario Planning?

BILL YATES:  The timing is just amazing to me.  I laugh when I look at Chapter 1, page 1.  You make reference to what’s called Event 201. A macro-level scenario-planning exercise where they simulated an outbreak of a coronavirus transmitted similar to what we hit just months later.  So we look at scenario planning; and we look at, oh, well, is it really worth the investment?  Is it applicable?  And right off the bat, you know, you give us a prime example of something that would have given us better preparation. And given us more insight into how to respond to this pandemic.

LANCE MORTLOCK:  It’s quite amazing, actually.  When you dig into Event 201, when you dig into some of the work that CCIS was doing in the U.S., like there were international experts around the world warning us, using scenario thinking, that we’re going to get hit by a global pandemic.  And it happened.  And we ignored them.  We didn’t learn from our environment, learn from our stakeholders.  We chose to, by all intents and purposes, ignore the experts.  And we’re dealing with the consequences right now, socially and economically.

BILL YATES:  Well, let’s step back.  Scenario planning.  Give us a definition of “scenario planning.”

LANCE MORTLOCK:  At its basic level, it really is about thinking through multiple futures.  So it’s not looking at one future and trying to predict the future because that’s forecasting.  And project managers would do that all the time and say, I’m going to forecast the budget, the spend on my project.  I’m going to forecast the results that I’m going to deliver and the benefits that I’m going to realize.

Scenario planning, which can be applied, by the way, and I have applied it in project management situations, is more about what are the multiple futures that can play out?  What do those futures look like?  And it helps leaders at different levels in organizations and in society deal with complexity and uncertainty.  It’s about envisaging those different futures, stretching mental models beyond what’s comfortable and normal to say, now, what happens if this worst-case situation occurs, or this best-case situation?  How would we react and adapt?  And it’s about monitoring the signals in the big bad world to say, okay, if that signal starts to show signs of X, Y, and Z, what would we do to kind of respond to that?  So I think of it as a methodology that helps with imagination around different futures at its basic level.

BILL YATES:  Your book really pushed me to think next level, to do strategic thinking.  To your point, scenario planning is not forecasting.  Forecasting is, okay, let’s try to predict the future.  This is big-time what-if analysis.  So if I think about a project manager listening to our podcast, maybe they don’t think about scenario planning day-to-day in their project.  But as they aspire to grow in their career, they need to have awareness of this and think about, okay, how can I understand and embrace scenario planning. Because it could really help take me to the next level in my career.  So appreciate you drawing a line between forecasting, which is a regular part of project management, and scenario planning, which has a lot of potential for project managers.

Examples of Scenario Planning Implementation

WENDY GROUNDS:  Would you have an example that you could share with us?  Maybe one or two examples of companies that have used scenario planning and successfully implemented it?

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Yeah, there’s lots of examples in the book.  And that was definitely the approach I tried to take is, yeah, there’s the theory, but what about the practice?  And so I tried to bring that to life in the book in terms of the practice.

One of the examples that I think hopefully will resonate with your audience is, as part of my day job as a partner in a professional services company, 90% of my time is delivering complex change as a consultant on projects with different clients.  And so I was working on a project with a municipality with a big city, and we were focused on helping this organization reduce costs.  So it was kind of your classic cost-reduction, cost-management project.  And I was the overall lead from a consulting perspective. I had a team of great professionals from EY and a great team from the client, and we were working together on this big program, trying to take out significant costs.

So really, really tough, tough environment to do that because you’re always trying to balance in the public sector that you want to reduce costs, but services to citizens need to stay the same.  And so as we were kind of working through the program, it struck me that we got to a moment in the program where we had a target of cost reduction that we were trying to achieve, but there were risks that we were trying to manage as a project management, project leadership group. 

And what I suggested and what we ended up doing was saying, let’s play out different scenarios in terms of the way this project is going to unfold.  So best-case situation is we hit the target of cost reduction, and we’re good to go.  So job done.  Worst-case is we’re significantly lower, and we actually put numbers behind that.  And then medium case is we’re somewhat lower.

So we started to paint these pictures of different futures for the program and the project that we were trying to drive.  And then we had a dialogue as a leadership team to say, okay, if the worst-case situation does play out, what are the interventions as program and project leadership that we’re going to make to get it back on track?  If it’s medium case, what are we going to do?  And if it’s best case, what are we going to do to kind of keep that moving along the right track?  So it was a great way of having a conversation with the client around in some way contingency planning around different options.

And I think, to your point earlier, you’ve got the basics of project management.  But I think when you start to apply these different tools and techniques that add on to the basics that you need to do, the basics being good project management, communication, scope management, risk management, issue management, decision management, those are the basics.  But to go to the next level. I think you need to be using tools like this and others to really stretch the thinking because ultimately it’s about ensuring that you deliver the project outcomes that you’ve committed to.  And I think it really helped us do that and be prepared that, hey, we might not hit the target. 

So what are we going to do to kind of ramp up and fill the funnel with new ideas around cost reductions and squeeze more out of the existing ideas?  So anyway, hopefully that resonates.  But that was a recent example where I think it really helped drive the right outcomes. 

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  It does.  And Lance, to me one of the keys with that is through scenario planning, the project team and the customer, the sponsor of that project, they were invited into an important conversation right from the start of the project.  Right?  You guys started having those conversations of what’s worst-case, best-case, most likely outcomes?  And would we be happy with that?  And if not, okay, what can we do about it?  Those are such important conversations to have early on.  And so many times we don’t do that; or if we do it, we do it too late in the project where we can’t go get the resources.  We can’t go get additional budget in order to make the necessary changes.  So that’s a key.

Essential Questions for Scenario Planning

 One of the questions we wanted to ask you is, when you’re implementing scenario planning, what are the essential questions that you should ask?

Step 1: Defining Scope

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Well, I mean, I think one of the upfront questions that you should be asking is like step one – and I talk about this in the book, there’s a whole chapter that’s kind of laid out around how you actually do this – is defining the scope of the problem that you’re trying to solve for.  You can use this tool to be a project-specific tool, or it can be an enterprise-wide tool.  You need to decide what level you’re working at and what kind of problem you’re trying to solve for.

I sit on the board of a not-for-profit organization.  And long story short, this not-for-profit is focused on complex system issues related to the energy sector and energy transition and climate change.  And we’re running a session in a couple of weeks. In fact, an all-day session where we’re going to use scenarios to paint out different futures.  Step one is what problem are we trying to solve for?  Well, for them, the problem they’re trying to solve for is, as a not-for-profit. How do they add value to the energy system as it relates to bringing energy companies and climate change advocates together for a more productive dialogue around the future of the energy system.  So that problem definition for them will be important to define upfront.  So I think that that’s important.

And one of the other upfront questions, as well, is what stakeholders do you want to involve to maybe go from nonprofit to kind of big macro issue?  One of the examples I talk about which is a very famous example of using scenarios, is the Mont Fleur example.  Mont Fleur is a hotel just outside Cape Town.  And when South Africa emerged from apartheid, one of the key questions that was getting asked in that country during a period of big transition was what kind of future do we want as a country?  Do we want revenge and retribution?  Or do we want to paint a picture of a better future for the country?

And so they involved a cross-section of stakeholders offsite at this hotel, famous hotel outside of Cape Town.  And they had academics, politicians, business leaders, all coming together in a cross-functional way to say, let’s paint four different futures of South Africa’s future at a really macro level and get input from all those different stakeholders.  So a very, very powerful way of bringing stakeholders together and taking the politics out of the room. Because it’s not about forecasting one future of what we think is going to play out, but it’s actually saying, hey, there’s different futures that can play out.  So to circle back to your question. I think when you want to apply this, define the scope and identify the key stakeholders is the key thing.

Step 2: Explore Environment

BILL YATES:  So you outline six planning steps. And the second step involves some tools that I think are very effective tools for project managers, especially in the area of risk management.  But let’s talk about this second planning step, and then let’s circle back on those tools, too.  So go ahead and describe that second step to us.

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Yes.  So the second step is really exploring the environment.  So this is where you’re doing the research, primary, secondary research.  And that can be a multi-week, multi-month exercise, or a couple of days. Depending on the scale of what you’re looking at.  So you’re really trying to get the nuggets of information uncovered that inform the future scenarios and the future thinking that you want to drive.  And so, like, I mean, I was working with a utility company in Toronto recently.  And for them, exploring the environment is really research around carbon tax, electric vehicle transition and adoption – and I’ll come back to EVs in a minute – the speed of energy transition and the challenges that we see around that.

So there was some research that was done to kind of look at different aspects of forces that are affecting their system and that.  And just like in a project, you’ve got forces that impact a project.  You know, I was working with another company, a Fortune 500 company in the U.S., with their board recently.  For them EV adoption is key, as well as autonomous technology.  And so they were really interested in understanding those forces that. Like there’s regulation around autonomous vehicles that’s really important to understand in terms of exploring the environment.  And so they do a bunch of research around that that informs their thinking.  So in that second step, you’re really trying to understand your environment and make sense of the environment.


BILL YATES:  There are some tools that you reference throughout the book, and one of them is, it’s an acronym, it’s P-E-S-T-E-L, PESTEL(PESTLE). But talk about using that analysis tool. Something that I think a lot of project managers, they’ve either heard about it, or maybe some of them use it today.  But it’s a great thing to add to the arsenal.

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Yeah, I’m a big tool fan.  I think you could overdo your use of tools on projects.  I think that’s one of the arts of good project management is picking the right tools for the right moment.  And so PESTEL is a great way of sort of understanding the forces that could impact your organization, your project, you know, whatever level of the system that you’re working in.  So when you spell out the word, PESTEL, it stands for Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, and Legal.  And so really what you’re trying to do is understand what are the forces that are at play that might impact us, that we’re interested in, as part of exploring the environment.

So, I mean, you think about a lot of project managers, given the emergence of digital and innovation, like I think about my own organization at EY, we’re doing tons of work in the technology space.  Most companies have some form of technology project or program underway.  And so understanding technological forces is pretty important.  And so if you’re implementing an ERP system or a new digital platform, IoT, some AI technology, having an understanding of what’s happening outside your organization is pretty important these days.

Porter’s Five Forces

BILL YATES:  There was another that you mentioned that I had not come across before, but I like it, especially for those companies that have a lot of competition in a competitive field or industry.  It’s called Porter’s Five Forces.  So as you’re thinking through scenario planning, and you’re looking at your environment, you talk about using this tool.  Describe those five forces.

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Yeah.  So Michael Porter is a pretty famous strategist, residing out of Harvard.  There’s a great book actually if people are interested, it’s called “The Lords of Strategy.”  And he’s definitely one of the lords.  And what he says, and it’s not right or wrong, it’s just another tool that is out there in terms of helping you think through strategically the problems that you’re trying to solve, is look, there is competition in the industry.  You’re dealing with competitors certainly in the private sector.  So that’s one of the forces.

There’s potential for new entrants into the industry.  I mean, I think about what’s happening in the energy sector, where we’re seeing oil and gas companies start to become more utility-type companies, power and utility.  So the power and utility companies look at that and go, oh, that’s interesting, that these new entrants are coming into our space.  You also think about Amazon.  Amazon’s starting to play in the grocery store space.  Like not only are we delivering your books, your electronics, and anything else that you want to buy on the planet, but we’re also going to be your grocery store, as well.  And so I think, you know, traditional grocery organizations would have never expected that new entrance into their industry.

And then you have like this force around the power suppliers.  So you’re constantly trying to understand my key suppliers.  How do I manage them?  And, you know, I think Apple as an example does a nice job of playing the field in terms of their suppliers and having a diverse set of suppliers, that they’re not reliant on just one, but they actually use a whole host of different suppliers.  Then you’ve got the power of customers, so that’s the kind of fourth force.

And then fifth you’ve got the threat of substitute products.  So, you know, you might be providing a product right now, but that might not be needed in the future.  You think about Netflix and Blockbuster, you know, Blockbuster had a business model that was based on cassette tapes and CDs.  But Netflix came and said, actually you don’t need that.  You can just download it online. So it was a big substitute product, and Blockbuster went out of business pretty quickly.  It’s the same in the digital space with Kodak.  There was a threat, a substitute product, and they went out of business.  So these five forces are always at play in the system, whether it’s competition, new entrants, suppliers, customers, or substitute products.  And as leaders strategically you should be thinking about these things all the time so that you don’t get disrupted.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Lance, just going back to the six planning steps that we were talking about, we did one, which was defining scope and identifying stakeholders.  Then number two was exploring the environment.  And then number three is analyze trends, risks, and uncertainties.  Can you talk a little bit about that?

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Yes.  So the third step, this is where you’ve explored the environment, you’ve used PESTEL, Porter’s Five Forces, other tools.  You’ve got a bunch of information.  Now the question is what do you do with it?  And so this is where you do need to do some analysis.  And so whether you’re working on a project or you’re working at an enterprise level for the entire company, you’ve got data now, primary, secondary data that’s been gathered.  Now you need to understand what does it mean?  What are the important forces that I care about the most because you can’t care about all of them.  What are the risks?  And what are the uncertainties that are at play?  And so you try to make sense of all of that through the analysis phase.

Step 4: Build Scenarios and Signposts

BILL YATES:  So the fourth step then is to build the scenarios and the signposts.  I’ve got a couple of questions on that.  How many scenarios, how many what-ifs does it make sense to build out and really invest time in, and effort?  And then talk to us about these signposts.  What do you mean by “signpost”? 

LANCE MORTLOCK:  So in terms of the scenarios, I think the sweet spot is between two and four.  I think if you do more than that, you’re probably overdoing it and cycling too much time.  Because at the end of the day, when you’re building the scenarios and signposts in step four, you’re really trying to tee up a conversation with the leadership team, whatever that might be.  And so if you have, like, six or eight scenarios, you’re going to lose them.  So you’ve got to create two to four very compelling scenarios that say there’s one end of the spectrum, there’s the other end of the spectrum, and maybe they’re somewhere in the middle, and let’s discuss what that means.

So when you build the scenarios, you’re trying to build that narrative, that story, create the features of each different scenario that might play out.  And the signpost piece of it is really to say, what would be the things that we would watch for that would tell us that that scenario is playing out or not?  So in my municipal example, for us, put simply, the signal was the value of the cost reduction initiatives that we were trying to drive.  So we were monitoring how much cost savings are we going to achieve? 

Once the savings were starting to dip below the target threshold, that was a key signal for us, okay, we’re now getting into Scenario B, which means that we need to take these actions.  Or if it starts to dip even further, oh, now we’re getting into Scenario C.  Now there’s a whole different set of actions that, as a leadership team, we need to take.

So you’re painting the picture of the different scenarios.  And I would suggest it’s important to tell stories because that engages leaders in the process, and then build signals around whether that story is playing out.  I mean, a great example, I was working with an association.  And what they did is they created videos of leaders speaking to each of the different scenarios.  And they used that as a way to kind of engage the employee base in the dialogue.


BILL YATES:  Lance, you’ve been there where you see brilliant data and analysis being presented to C-suite people, but it’s in a way that’s dry or too long or too many choices.  They just glaze over and start to think about, okay, what’s the next meeting that I have?  So you’re right, there needs to be a story behind it.

And the other thing that really stood out to me was in the past I’ve thought about scenario planning and what-if analysis as something that’s kind of done at a point in time.  And then you print it out, you’ve done this analysis, and now you’ve got this nice resource.  But what do you do with it; right?  You know, it’s kind of done.

But looking for reasons to take action or reasons to change our plan is something that helps me know, okay, this needs to be fresh.  If it’s going to be robust and bring value, we have to continue to take a fresh look at it and make sure that our assumptions are still applicable, they’re correct, that our data’s still correct.  So just as with risk management you have a risk owner. I see the need here for people have to be accountable and looking for signs, looking for triggers that would say, okay, something’s happening.  We think this scenario’s about to play out.  Or we need to refresh our thinking.

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Yeah, no, that’s right.  I mean, look.  With storytelling, we talked earlier about how project managers take their discipline to the next level.  There’s the basics of what’s expected.  But the truly great project manager leaders again are using the different tools out there like scenarios, like the power of storytelling, to create a more compelling vision of what the future could look like.  And those are the truly great people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with do that particularly well.

I mean, you think about – let’s just take a step back for a moment and kind of reflect a little bit on storytelling.  You think about the great leaders that you work with, whether it’s a CEO of a company or a leader of a big program or a big project.  The ones that stick in my mind in my career are the ones that tell story really well because you relate to them, what they’re trying to achieve, and they galvanize the project team in a different kind of way.

Step 5: Confirm Scenarios and Stress Test

 WENDY GROUNDS:  Moving on to number five in your scenario planning steps, confirm scenarios and stress test.  Can you tell us a bit about that one?

LANCE MORTLOCK:  So in terms of steps one to four, you define the problem.  You explore the environment.  You analyze the trends. And you build two to four scenarios with signposts.  Now you need to confirm them.  And what that means is, okay, we’ve done this exercise, but to what end?  So this is where you typically bring key leaders together and say, okay, A, B, and C scenarios could play out.  What would we do in each situation?  So this is where the rubber hits the road.

And when you think about this at a strategic level, there may be foundational elements that stay the same no matter what scenario plays out.  But there may be particular actions, activities, initiatives, you know, things that you do that are different in each of the scenarios.  And that’s the conversation you want to have with a leader is to say, look, if the worst-case situation happens, what are we going to do?  If the best-case situation happens – because there is upside with this, it’s not only about risk, but it’s about opportunity. What are we going to do?  So that’s a really important event where you bring the cross-functional leaders together and have that dialogue.

And the reason that I use the word “stress testing” is because I think too often in business and in the public realm, as well, we create strategies that are very, very linear.  It is “Here’s what we want to be” and “Here’s what we’re going to focus on in the next five years.”  Whereas what I’m saying is actually there needs to be more flexibility and dynamic capability in that.  Scenarios help you do that because what’s the famous saying, that “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”.  Mike Tyson said that.  I mean, I can’t believe I just quoted him.  But that is just it.  Like we all have these great plans on projects.  But what happens if we get punched in the face?  Stuff happens.  Context changes.

And so, like, what I plan on doing and what I’ve been doing the last few years, but what I want to do in the next few years as I work with different leaders and different organizations, is highlight the importance of this nimbleness and this flexibility because we live in a very uncertain, very complex world, and that’s certainly been highlighted in the last 12 months.  And I think, you know, there’s more uncertainty to come, not less.

Step 6: Monitor Signposts and Execute Strategies

BILL YATES:  So the sixth step is – it follows logically.  You talk about monitoring the signposts and then executing strategies.  Walk us through that.

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Yes.  So now you’ve had the conversation.  You’ve got the plans in place.  Now I think it’s more about monitoring and controlling.  And so you think about project management and sort of whether you’re using PRINCE or PMBOK, PMI, you know, different disciplines out there, the monitoring and controlling part of project management is really important.  And in scenario planning, it’s also important.  You’re monitoring the signposts and the signals that say, hey, Scenario A is playing out.  How are we going to react and adapt to it?

And if you’ve got good plans in place, you’re going to react and adapt to that particular signal.  Like my example with the municipal organization.  Identification of cost reduction opportunities is dipping below the target threshold.  All right, we’ve got to drum up some different activities to push it back up above that level.  So you’re constantly, just like on a project, you’re monitoring, controlling the different signals of progress on a project or risks that might be playing out and becoming issues. And other key signals that tell you whether you’re realizing the benefits that are important to your project or program.

So I’m trying to draw the parallels between scenarios and project management because I do think that for your listeners there are a lot of parallels between the two.  Like one of the things that I want folks to take away from this conversation is this is not some nefarious strategic management tool.  But there are concepts in this for everyone to make them better project managers at the end of the day.  Truly believe that.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I’m with you.  Scenario planning is that next step that I just see project managers taking in their career through their development.  So, yeah, I’m with you.  There’s a lot of parallels here, lot of parallels.

Applying AI in Scenario Planning

WENDY GROUNDS:  Lance, one of the things we wanted to talk to you about just quickly was AI in scenario planning.  So how can it be applied?

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Yes.  So when I was researching for the book, reading academic papers, reading the traditional books like “Life 3.0,” “Superintelligence,” “Our Final Invention,” all these really amazing future thinkers around AI, it struck me that a lot of the applications of AI that we traditionally use tend to be in the operational processes.  But this real emerging area of interest is around how we can use AI within strategic processes.  And one of the big burning platform challenges that we have as a society is we’re creating more data than we know what to do with.  IBM would say that in the last two years, more data has been created than in the rest of humanity and history combined.  But we are processing a fraction of that data to drive insights and support decisions.

So with a subdiscipline within AI which I talk about, which is Natural Language Processing. You know, there’s this opportunity for leaders, for project managers to use NLP to help scrub data and draw out insights from it. In fact, there are examples of it being used already.  Up here in Canada there was an article in The Globe and Mail, one of our major newspapers, where the government of Canada was using NLP to scrub 10,000 data sources from news media, social media, to look for early signals of pandemics.  Now, unfortunately, a few months before COVID they defunded it.  So some would say we were less prepared than we could have been had they continued focusing on international signal monitoring.

But that example, which I talk about in the book, is a great example of AI being used to help us deal with this vast volume of information to draw out risks, uncertainties, and complexities that are important.  Like humans only have a certain level of capability to process information.  So we have to get better at using tools for strategic signal monitoring.  Another example I use is for hurricanes.  Like in the U.S. there are big challenges these days with climate change around hurricanes that have massive impacts on the coastal regions of the U.S.  They’re now using machine learning to look at signals as it relates to weather patterns, to predict when a hurricane might become a serious issue.  It’s being used in the military.  It’s being used in investment banking.

So I think the next frontier is we’re going to start to see AI being used in strategic processes like we’ve never done before.  And that doesn’t mean that the humans will be completely replaced.  I talk about in the book “collective intelligence,” which is humans and machines working together.  So, you know, one plus one equals three.  There is an opportunity for us to propel our capabilities.  We’ll still make decisions.  We still need to bring creativity to the table.  But we can use algorithms through AI to really take management processes like scenario planning, strategic planning, to the next level.  And that’s really what I try and convey in the book, that we have to get prepared for that.

Connect with Lance

WENDY GROUNDS:  One last question, Lance, before we let you go.  Can you tell us how our audience can reach out to you, if they want to get the book? Or if they want to just reach out and ask you any further questions?

LANCE MORTLOCK:  The book is available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, eBooks.  So you can order “Disaster Proof” through any of the major platforms if it’s available.  And then I would also encourage your readers, if any of what I’ve said has kind of resonated, have a look on my website, which is www.lancemortlock.com.  And I’m also on LinkedIn, and feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

BILL YATES:  I applaud you for this book.  If somebody has a casual interest in scenario planning, or ever does what-if analysis, or knows what “Monte Carlo analysis” is referring to, take it to the next level.  Get this book.  Read it.  And again, Lance, you have so many practical examples of the application of scenario planning that it kind of builds its own case.  I mean, I keep reading throughout the book of examples of where scenario planning worked. And where it can be effective, or it can lead you into the right market or to the right decision.  So, well done.  Thank you for your contribution to the project management community as we embrace scenario planning at a whole ‘nother level.

LANCE MORTLOCK:  Pleasure, yeah.  Thanks for having me and drilling me on all those great questions.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you for joining us.  You can visit us at Velociteach.com, where you can also subscribe to this podcast and see a complete transcript of the show.  You also just earned Professional Development Units by listening to this podcast.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page. Click the button that says Claim PDUs, and follow through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

One response to “Episode 133 – Scenario Planning – Disaster Proof your Projects”

  1. Tammi B says:

    Great info. Thanks

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