State Policy Network
Five exercises to help your organization set priorities in uncertain times

By Todd Davidson, Senior Director of Strategic Development at State Policy Network

COVID-19 has upended the world, dramatically affecting the economy, politics, and our culture. The situation is evolving daily, and the rapid pace of change makes it difficult to fully know what the ramifications of COVID-19 will be—and what the impact will be on your think tank. What will it mean for your priorities, your staff and colleagues, or your family?

In unpredictable and uncertain times, there is a valuable tool available to help you make sense of your changing environment and restore confidence and clarity in your work. It’s called scenario planning, and it’s an exercise that companies and organizations of all sizes use to establish a clear set of priorities and allocate talent, budgets, and other resources accordingly.

Scenarios are stories of a plausible future. Emphasis on the word plausible. The intent of a scenario is to help you think through all of the things that could happen, not to predict what will happen. Scenarios broaden our view of what we could face, and that broadened view empowers us to make better decisions and be more prepared. Resist the urge to dismiss scenarios as unlikely and heed the age-old advice “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”

Because COVID-19 is impacting everyone and several institutions are already anticipating the effects, the hard work of formulating potential scenarios has already been done by expert epidemiologists and economists. Here are the three main scenarios gleaned from several scenarios put out by major consulting firms, risk advisors, and health authorities that your organization should be aware of:

Low impact scenario: Temporary shutdowns and quick recovery.

There is heightened awareness of COVID-19 and short-term measures take place to control the virus. Due to seasonality of the virus and low death-rate among working-age population, there is a short economic decline but few lay-offs. The economy bounces back in the early summer of 2020.

Medium impact scenario: Slowdown and scale back

Governments, businesses, and individuals take extensive measures to “flatten the curve.” The cancellations of major events continue into May or June. These measures largely succeed in flattening the curve, but hotbeds of virus outbreaks pop up frequently in localized areas, providing constant reminders to the public to continue social distancing. The US federal government and many states implement temporary fiscal stimulus policies to assist the industries acutely affected by the virus. This stimulus prevents mass layoffs in those industries. Transmission of the virus begins to ebb in the summer months. The economy bounces back in late summer or fall of 2020.

High impact scenario: Pandemic, lockdown, recession, TARP-like fiscal stimulus

Social distancing policies and strategies fail to flatten the curve. COVID-19 maxes out the healthcare system capacity and drastic government measures are taken. Transmission continues to unabated into the fall. A recession ensues, resulting in mass layoffs that start in the restaurant and retail industries. These layoffs cascade into a financial crisis as individuals begin to default on their loans. A massive TARP-like bailout program is enacted by Congress.

The question now is: For each scenario, how would your organization respond? What would stay and what would shift? While we can’t fully predict which scenario will most likely play out, you can position your organization to weather the crisis—at all levels of intensity—by going through the following scenario planning exercise.

Gather leaders on your staff, at least one person from each major discipline (communications, development, policy, government affairs, operations, etc.). For each of these scenarios think through the following questions:

Exercise 1: What would this mean for my stakeholders? What will they be thinking, feeling, doing? Answer these questions for the following groups:

Exercise 2: What would this mean for my organization’s goals? Should any goals be refined? Are any goals a much higher priority? Should a goal be scaled up or down or put on hold? Are any goals now obsolete? Should we have a new goal?

Exercise 3: How will this scenario affect our strategies? Would the strategies become easier or harder? Would the strategies need to be overhauled? Would any new strategies become available?

Exercise 4: What does this mean for the policy debate in my state? What topics are going to dominate the agenda? Are those topics related to our goals and strategies? Who is going get more influence or power? Are they my allies or opponents? Who is going get less influence or power? Are they my allies or opponents?

Exercise 5: What will we do? Based on the four exercises establish your priorities. Make a to do list and assign specific owners to each task. Be sure one of those tasks is to inform the rest of your staff of these scenarios, changing priorities, and new plans.