How to use scenario planning to help your organisation prepare for Brexit
Katie Marlow, one of the CIPR Inside committee members, attended the CIPR’s most recent Brexit scenario masterclass. Here she shares what they covered on the day and how it can help us as communicators in different organisations.
I was invited along with 17 others to attend the second ‘Brexit scenario masterclass’ session held by the CIPR with Dr Jon White facilitating on Thursday 24 May 2018.
The aim of the morning workshop was to work through scenarios together and understand how we can help our employers and clients to plan for Brexit, whatever shape that it may take.
Setting the scene
It’s been nearly two years since that notorious referendum. No matter what side of the result we may sit it’s going to affect all of us, in our work and our personal lives. While the details are still unclear as to what Brexit will be like and what frameworks businesses will be operating within, it’s clear we need to get planning for it. Brexit presents numerous communication challenges both inside and outside of organisations. There’s so much work for internal communication and external communication professionals to do. We need to step up and show leadership, to connect and engage with different stakeholders and support the organisations we work for as they go through what could be some of the most challenging changes and developments in their history.
According to the CIPR Brexit and Public Relations in 2018 survey just 35% of PR professionals responding in the summer of 2017, believe their organisations are ready for Brexit. 47% strongly disagreed or disagreed that their organisations had made advanced preparations for Brexit, while 53% had begun preparations for Brexit. 31% reported that their organisations were making no active preparations for Brexit. 72% of respondents agreed that they had taken their own initiative in learning about Brexit to help prepare their organisations, while 67% were worried about how Brexit may affect their organisations.
Fewer than one in ten of the mostly senior PR professionals surveyed felt that their organisations are happy with the Government’s approach to Brexit.
Brexit represents a considerable risk for organisations of all shapes and sizes as it will alter our economic and regulatory framework whilst also changing the political and civic landscape.
It would be interesting to understand how prepared businesses are now, a year on from the CIPR study. Anecdotally, from discussions on the day, it feels like not much has changed as government negotiations and progress are slow. Clarity is still needed, but perhaps won’t come until the very last moment. Hence some of the organisations who are preparing themselves are making moves into the EU to secure some consistency in their business operations.
Why have a Brexit scenario planning masterclass?
I was keen to attend this masterclass. We won’t go into the politics of it here, but from a factual perspective, Brexit is absorbing so much central government time and effort, and yet as citizens and advisors to business we have little clarity of what Government hopes to achieve and no firm destination for the UK. There is talk of ideas but little on the factual benefits so far. Plus, the people of the United Kingdom still appear to be divided along voting lines, with some outliers getting further entrenched in their positions of leave or remain, and no prevalent voice for those in the centre ground. None of this is helpful for businesses to plan, support their people and grow.
‘Within the room it was clear we all felt concern at the lack of clarity from government, the lack of preparation from business and the public opinions and division that the vote has exposed.’
I find the lack of preparation really shocking at this stage of the timeline, with less than 300 days until Brexit on 29 March 2019. But I can see why it’s not happening in many businesses. Many just don’t have the resources or time to plan for this with its potentially vast reach and unknown outcomes.
On the day of the workshop, I found I really wasn’t alone in my concern, and in part that was a relief, it isn’t just me and my inner circle that were feeling this way. Many of those attending felt that with the lack of clarity from Government, businesses across industries were struggling to prepare for something so heavily discussed in the media and yet so uncertain.
So, to attend a workshop was the perfect opportunity to work through our thoughts and create our own plans and attempt to find some clarity.
And that’s what the masterclass is all about.
How does the scenario planning work?
One of the group described it like crisis planning, on an industrial scale but slower moving than your ‘normal’ crisis. It’s true, it is like planning for a raft of unknown events and how they will affect the businesses we work for and with, just like we plan for crises in different industries. The only way to prepare for any kind of Brexit is to plan for different themes and different scenarios within them, and the worst possible outcomes from them for your organisation.
That’s what the morning helped us as a group of communicators to understand and undertake.
While we are all from different organisations, we took a national view – considering this exercise from the view of what is good for UKplc.
The workshop showed us how to use the tools of scenario planning for the biggest change in the UK since WW2.
We started by looking five years into the future and imagining that in 2023 we had left the EU, and what the factors that would constitute a successful Brexit would be.
Together, we listed the different variables we considered to play a part in Brexit and what would make it successful for the UK or otherwise. Across the room we created a compilation of factors – you can see them in the summary produced by CIPR from the masterclass. They ranged from ensuring that rights of citizens remain as they are, to there being no harm to the GDP and workers rights being protected. It’s not an exhaustive list, there’s likely to be more for different sectors.
Then we were divided into groups of four to six, and together we chose our three most pertinent themes for our group to discuss and dissect into the different scenarios, the worst case, the most likely and the best case.
In our group, we looked at:
- Freedom of movement / access to skills
- Broad public support
- Regulatory framework
The idea is to take a topic – for example, access to skills, and make a calculated assumptions based upon our own understanding and background reading on the topic about what ‘access to skills’ would look like in the best-case scenario, to the worst-case scenario.
Best case scenario
- No restrictions on movement and access to skills
- UK fairly enforces its laws on immigration
- Fresh start – with full cross-party backing
- Fair opportunities from EU
- UK seen as a place people want to come to work and live
Most likely scenario
- Bespoke to sector policies
- Need more information and processes for entry / visas etc
- Extension of the transition period
- More lobbying required on sector needs
Worst case scenario
- Withdraw completely
- No border controls
- Or extreme border controls
- No access to skills
We worked together in our groups for about 90 minutes to go through our three themes, and the three scenarios for each theme.
We then regrouped with everyone and discussed how we felt about the most likely scenarios that we had concluded upon in our smaller groups. No one in the room was happy with their most likely scenarios. So the next steps would be to determine what actions we can take in our organisations to push towards the best case scenarios where our organisations would be more able to survive, thrive and develop.
We only had a little time to discuss the steps we’d take to push for our best-case scenario. In a live organisation this would be a critical stage and would give you a raft of ideas to prepare the organisation. This could be anything from lobbying, grouping with similar organisations to amplify your voice, looking for new ways to solve your talent needs and finding creative ways to overcome some of the divides in your communities. These outputs would be organisation specific and where the real work could begin to work on research, campaigns and more from a communication perspective to support your organisational plans with Brexit.
I found this event fascinating and incredibly useful to understand and find a way through the complexity and uncertainty of Brexit. It provided a place to think rationally, collectively and constructively about different Brexit scenarios, and to discuss ideas with others without it becoming politically charged.
It wasn’t a particularly reassuring experience faced with the realisation that none of us felt confident with the most likely scenario. We were all feeling perplexed at the lack of distinct advantages to Brexit or indeed how and what might happen. But as a group of communicators, used to operating in complex and uncertain situations, it was reassuring to know that we all felt similar frustrations, but at the same time were keen to find ways to help our organisations and ourselves as individuals to make sense of it, plan for it in some way and to give our organisations courage to take action and push for what they want and need to be successful.
- I found this to be a helpful exercise for me both personally and professionally.
- I left feeling better equipped to manage discussions with others about Brexit and its effects on organisations
- We were given a practical methodology for scenario planning that we can use to help our employers and clients to better understand Brexit and its possible consequences.
- We made connections and shared our thoughts and ideas openly and honestly.
How to run a scenario planning workshop
My tips for a Brexit scenario workshop
- Bring together a cross section of people from your organisation to take part in a workshop. Be mindful of different levels and departments and how their views and insights will represent the organisation fairly and accurately. Be aware of strong characters who may have lots to offer but may also affect the dynamic in the discussions.
- Set out the way you will work together – provide clear guidance at the start. Encourage people to get talking and opening up on the subject and the points that matter to the organisation. This could be difficult as Brexit has divided many, so make sure you have an understanding of what to expect from your group.
- Make sure everyone leaves their politics behind. You need people to come with an open mind and a practical approach to find solutions.
- Develop your thinking around the top priority areas first, then work through other variables at a later date.
- Once you’ve worked through your top scenarios at best, most likely and worst case outcomes, discuss ideas that the organisation could take to push for the best case scenario.
- Then take your findings to the wider business decision makers to assess wider feeling about the scenarios
- Once you’ve got a clear picture of how the variables and scenarios are prioritised in your organisation, you can work with a multi-disciplinary team to develop actions you could take to maximise the opportunity and push for your best case scenario.
Workshop top tips
Workshops are a brilliant way to garner knowledge from the organisation, engage and involve people from across the business for a range of topics (not just Brexit that we’re covering here).
Here are some top tips to help you run effective workshops.
- Provide clear goals – what you want to achieve at the end of the session. And what will happen next – share this with your attendees at the start
- Provide the right setting and tools for the job – it sounds like a no brainer, but it’s easily overlooked and you don’t get the best results when people are too hot, too cold, thirsty etc.
- Provide structure – keep to your time plan so you cover the ground you need to cover
- Get everyone involved – not everyone is outspoken, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to contribute – bring them in as appropriate. Your mix of people is important here, if there’s an overly dominant senior manager in the room, others may be reticent to speak up.
- Give the group the control – use tools such as appreciative enquiry to keep the session solution focussed and led by the attendees. Allow them to prioritise their topics – in this instance the top three Brexit themes to discuss.
- Keep everyone focussed – with a huge topic such as Brexit it will be easy to head off subject and so careful management is important. Bring conversations into the framework of the workshop when they go off topic, set them into context and see if they still stand in the framework.
- Split your group into smaller groups so they can have meaningful discussions and you can maximise participation.
- As you come to the end, revisit your goals and be clear on your outcomes, what you’ll do next and how the group will know what you’re doing with the outputs.
- Keep everyone informed after the event of what’s happening next, what they can do to get more involved etc.
- Maintain the momentum – follow up.
I try to keep myself up to date with Brexit. I’ve collated some useful resources.
- CIPR Brexit monthly reports and information https://www.cipr.co.uk/node/113436
- CIPR Brexit and Public Relations in 2018 survey: https://www.cipr.co.uk/sites/default/files/11292%20CIPR%20Brexit%20and%20PR%20Guide%20v4.pdf
- Bloomberg https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-05/brexit-bulletin-a-written-proposal
- Economist https://www.economist.com/brexit
- UK government https://www.gov.uk/guidance/exiting-the-european-union
- European Union https://europa.eu/european-union/index_en
- I recently came across these Brexit maps that help to show the way through different factors and they could be quite useful for anyone trying to plan for Brexit: http://www.brexitmapping.com/brexit_maps_sales.html
- CIPR Summary: https://www.cipr.co.uk/node/113436