Scenario Mapping for Business

Scenarios, in simple terms, are possible and plausible pictures of the future. Within the corporate world, scenario mapping (also known as scenario planning, reality mapping or design mapping) is a method used by organizations to collaboratively develop, discuss and communicate possible outcomes and solutions around different business scenarios.

Large multinational companies such as Royal Dutch Shell Corporation have pioneered scenario mapping since the early 1970s to reveal connections between strategic planning, risk management, leadership development and innovation. Thus, scenario mapping helps organizations “think outside of the box” by challenging the industry status quo and by tapping into your team’s creativity and understanding of future business opportunities.

Applying Scenario Mapping to Your Business 

Although scenarios can be documented using many different methods (e.g. storyboards, reports, videos, etc.), scenario mapping usually takes the form of a highly structured workshop. If you’re wondering how to get started or what scenario mapping entails, the following are a few best practices for conducting a successful meeting. 

1. Determine If Scenario Mapping Is the Right Method to Use 

Prior to planning a scenario-mapping session, determine whether your organization’s situation or business issues meet the following conditions: 

  • The given situation has a high level of complexity that presents unique challenges and obstacles.
  • The given situation has a long-term focus that requires planning at least a few years into the future.
  • There is uncertainty about how external environmental factors will impact the given situation.
  • Your organization has the necessary resources to hold multiple discussions involving different stakeholders over a period of time, and it can distribute the outputs from those sessions throughout the organization.

If your business issues meet these qualifications, then scenario mapping can be an effective technique for building stories that lead to smart decision-making. 

2. Reserve the Appropriate Space, and Invite the Right People 

If you’re a software company, your scenario-mapping session might involve the professionals who help create your customers’ user experience. This group of invitees would include graphic designers, software developers, web researchers and/or marketers. 

Additionally, in order to get a good representation of organizational knowledge, ideas and experience, keep the number of people manageable, ideally between three and five participants. This will make it easier to capture insights and facilitate discussion throughout the session.

3. Start Posting Sticky Notes

There are several ways to develop scenarios, but one common method is taking into account factors such as control (i.e. your current situation or something you’re familiar with) and uncertainty. From there, participants in your scenario-mapping workshop can start using techniques to decide on preferred scenarios that expand on key uncertainties. 

For example, if your organization is considering doing business internationally, one of the uncertainties your business might attempt to plan for would be economic growth. Participants could start discussing scenarios that would emerge in the event of high or low economic growth in a particular country.

On your sticky notes, jot down who the specific players are and what they might do in the given situation. Be detailed, as you’ll want to evaluate the different components of a given situation later in the session. You’ll also want to record any questions or assumptions that are revealed in each scenario, as well as standout ideas and suggestions presented by participants. 

4. Map Out Your Steps Visually 

As you write down your scenario, keep in mind that you’re mapping out the business steps, roles, goals, market forces and organizational needs that play out in the given situation from start to finish. Line the sticky notes horizontally (from left to right) so they’re clearly “mapped” out for the group in a way that’s logical and visual. 

Participants can also identify events that are common across multiple scenarios versus events that are unique in single occurrences. Whereas common events will alert participants to scenarios where market players have a stake, unique events can reveal situations that are high-risk but have the potential to produce significant revenue or growth. 

5. Determine Possible Actions for Future Scenarios 

As you and your team analyze scenarios that typically involve both controllable factors and significant uncertainties, decide what your organization’s options are in each given situation. What is possible, and what solutions can be mapped to each of the scenarios you’ve outlined? 

6. Make Decisions, and Distribute the Results 

The final stage of your scenario-mapping workshop should be to develop an action plan based on the scenarios you’ve mapped out. It should include not only key responsibilities for participants but also the different options available to your organization based on the scenarios outlined. Eventually, you’ll implement these actions, monitor their successes and failures, and repeat the process if necessary throughout the rest of your organization.

Additional Resources 

Scenario mapping can help your organization explore various outcomes and their implications, rather than the “most likely” outcome based on current conditions. The method also crowdsources business knowledge from stakeholders across your organization and effectively harnesses resources for strategic decision-making. This is what makes scenario mapping powerful: it forces individuals to step outside of their own experiences and interpretations of the world, and it allows them to incorporate outside experiences and perspectives into the business dialogue.  


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