As the COVID-19 pandemic and national reckoning with racial justice continue, arts and culture organizations find themselves in an utterly transformed, and potentially decimating, landscape. To help organizations make their way through this unprecedented time—and even envision some silver linings—global strategic and business planning firm AEA Consulting has released a scenario-planning toolkit.

Created specifically for the arts sector, the toolkit describes four possible scenarios for the pandemic’s course, and people’s behavior in the wake of it, over the next five years. A companion report looks at a recent survey of arts leaders and field experts, providing insights that arts organizations can draw on as they undertake their planning.

The Wallace Blog conducted an email dialogue about the report with Daniel Payne, a managing principal at AEA Consulting. The exchange has been edited for clarity and length.

Given the extraordinary degree of uncertainty we are facing, scenario planning might seem counterintuitive. Why is it especially helpful in conditions of high uncertainty?

COVID-19 shortened our planning horizons from years to weeks. Scenario planning presents an opportunity to think beyond near-term predictions and be more imaginative about multiple possible futures—exactly what is needed when the fog of uncertainty makes it hard to clearly determine likely outcomes. It encourages organizations to focus less on individual bets about direction and instead think about core principles (purpose, mission, and service to communities and audiences), consider potential impact in multiple possible outcomes and lay out different paths to achieve success.

In other words, there is no right future or wrong future in scenario planning. It is a process that helps an organization imagine itself in different future settings and craft a response, perhaps even uncovering previously hidden opportunities. It extends the planning horizon beyond the near-term—whether to reopening, the end of a financial crisis or otherwise—and ensures organizations can best position themselves for success in multiple possibilities in the long term.

What is the difference between scenario planning and “strategic planning” exercises—what are the pros and cons of each, especially when uncertainty is so high?

Scenario planning and strategic planning are related to one another in many ways. One way to think about scenario planning is as a form of long-range strategic planning that emphasizes an understanding of the wider environment that you are operating in. It also turns out that some of the weaknesses that we see in traditional strategic planning processes can be mitigated by scenario planning. So, rather than thinking of them as either-or, you can think of them as yes-and, and consider adding a scenario planning process to your next round of strategic planning.   

One of the cons often said about strategic planning is the plan can be seen as a rigid direction toward a three-year or five-year horizon that may become irrelevant when the context shifts in six months or one year. Scenario planning offers a counter to that, both prompting people for more flexibility in their consideration of the future and providing a systematic way to find commonalities in those possibilities to create more solid footing for a plan. In contrast, one of the potential cons to scenario planning is that it becomes too abstract, and you end up without clear actionable outcomes. But a good strategic planning process would provide a framework to take the outputs from scenario planning and then develop action steps and implementation plans, track financial impacts and other resource needs, and create the tools to measure whether you are achieving the desired impact. Neither are a magic bullet, but in concert (and with continued attention and evaluation), they can help prepare organizations to advance their mission, no matter what may be next.

Though each of the tool’s four scenarios presents a very different future, are there any commonalities among them that organizations might prepare for now?

While we would say there are no absolute certainties, there are certainly a number of common themes that you can find if you were to sit in each of the four futures that we’ve identified in the toolkit. We highlighted a number of these in the overview document—often these are related to the impacts of longer-term trends in demographics or advances in science and technology. For example, one common theme we highlight is an increased focus on racial equity and social justice: beyond the moral imperative itself, most future projections show the U.S. becoming a majority-minority country sometime in the 2040s. It’s going to become an increasingly critical issue simply so that arts organizations can engage the audience.

There are other commonalities that deal more with the likelihood of increasing uncertainty and volatility—for example, a need for the sector to better engage with and manage mental health impacts. There are also potential impacts of this in how the sector creates the physical spaces it uses—to increase flexibility to deal with the possibilities of continued distancing, but also to increase their openness to create a renewed sense of welcome. And we will need to rethink how all spaces can be managed to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. These are trends that already existed in many new cultural spaces, but they seem to become more urgent no matter the future scenario.

In what ways can scenario planning go wrong—or at least fall into traps—and how can these potential pitfalls be avoided?

One way that scenario planning can go wrong is embedded in the name itself—to spend too much time with the scenarios and not enough time thinking about their implications for an organization. We’ve tried to emphasize the need to make this work actionable through the materials, but for some, there’s a rabbit hole of spending so much time and energy crafting those different futures. We hope the toolkit can help that by providing these four future scenarios, so that the focus can move more quickly to their implications. However, we know there’s no one size fits all answer, and different organizations may have different contexts to emphasize or specific situations they want to address in the scenarios.

Another common challenge is spending too much time and energy on one preferred future—whether because that is the future seen as most likely or because there is some preferred outcome with in it. One way we suggest dealing with that is to make sure that you bring together a diverse group of participants for the process—diverse in backgrounds and experiences, but also bringing voices to the table that may be newer to an organization’s strategic process. It can be a great opportunity to bring in a board member who recently joined or a member of your community that you don’t get to speak with enough.

What is an example of a perspective that doing scenario planning opened up for you?
One thing this process has opened our eyes to—not entirely new at all, but certainly something this highlights in a significant way—is the array of skills an organization needs to be able to manage their future direction. We built this toolkit after talking to a wide range of arts leaders for the work discussed in Arts Organizations’ Early Response to COVID-19 Uncertainty: Insights from the Field. There was a wide range of skills these leaders discussed as critical to moving forward—from data analysis, digital expertise, business modeling and core leadership training to, yes, scenario planning resources—and that doesn’t even get into the skills needed to produce most organization’s core programs. It is going to take a diverse but coordinated set of people to achieve success.

And more directly related to the scenarios, one thing that constantly popped out to me in creating the scenarios and using them in workshops with several organizations is how significant the digital component of arts and culture is likely to be, and how far behind most of the arts and culture sector is there.

What are alternative ways other than scenario planning to think systematically about the future?

If you search for “future thinking” or “strategic foresight,” there are lots of lots of different methods that you will come across, ranging from relatively straightforward methods like prediction games and markets to the highly idiosyncratic (and usually trademarked!). Others might suggest the Tarot, I Ching and spin-the-bottle as popular strategies! One thing that we do like about scenario planning is that it does seem to be readily linked to creative and imaginative outputs that may be familiar to arts and cultural organizations. You can take the futures identified in your scenarios and turn them into a sort of science fiction. We’ve seen organizations illustrate them graphically, imagine future situations as one-act plays or even turn them into choreography. It’s a great way to engage teams in an exercise that is outside their normal daily work, too.

For more on scenario planning and the future of the arts see this panel discussion ‚Äčfeaturing Payne and others, part of Wallace's Reimaginging the Future of The Arts series.