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Scenario planning - a chief executive's view

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How sexual health advice provider, Brook, used scenarios to stimulate strategic thinking.

About Brook


Brook is the only national voluntary sector provider of free and confidential sexual health advice and services specifically for young people under 25. Brook is a registered charity and has 40 years' experience of providing professional advice through specially trained doctors, nurses, counsellors, and outreach and information workers to over 200,000 young people each year. 

An interview with the chief executive

In this interview, Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, shares his experience of using scenarios as an input to strategic planning.

What made you think about using scenario planning in your strategy development?

There were two drivers:

I was new in the role and had never been solely responsible for strategy before, so I’d been doing lots of reading around the subject and was interested in what I’d heard about using scenarios to stimulate strategic thinking; I had a sense it could be useful. I had also heard about the investment YouthNet make in exploring their future using scenarios. I respected them and their work, they position themselves well, so it seemed like it could work.

When we started talking at the board about what was needed, there was a range of views about the time period over which our new strategy should apply. Some felt 10 years made sense and others couldn’t see the value of looking beyond three, or maybe five – certainly less than 10. We knew that we needed to take action to find out more about our potential future, to help with our thinking, as we didn’t know enough.

So what happened next?

The trustees were clear they needed some evidence – they needed to understand a bit more about the ‘business’ and the environment we were working in so they could be strategic. 

I thought we should try the approach they use in parliamentary hearings and take evidence from people about what they thought our world might look like in 10 years time. We could identify who we needed to talk to by the areas where we needed more knowledge. If we asked them to come to talk to us, we could reflect on their ideas and become really engaged in our future and in the process of strategic planning. 

I also wanted the board to know that people were interested enough in Brook to come and talk to us. This would signal to the board the importance of their role and their place in the scheme of things.

How did your scenarios day shape up?

We set up a special board meeting, off site which was facilitated by an external consultant.  In the morning we asked a range of people from inside and outside the organisation to come and talk to us about their view of what the Brook world might look like in 10 years time.  No-one turned us down!  We had presentations from:

  • young people (our client group)
  • network managers from Brook
  • our key Commissioner, the Department of Health
  • policy makers from the Department
  • Stuart Etherington from NCVO who talked about the voluntary and community sector over the next 10 years

Each person talked for about 20 minutes, then we had a time for the Board to ask them questions.  Then the next person came in.  We had a morning of soaking up really interesting and thought provoking ideas.  Everyone had a view on the world in 10 years time and Brook’s place in it. 

To avoid information overload, at the end of the morning we summarised what we felt were the main drivers that we would have to build on or face over the next 10 years, and summarised Brook’s internal capacity to do this – what we do well and could do better.  Then we had a good lunch!

How did you process all of this information?

We picked up again in the afternoon by exploring the external drivers and Brook capacity further.  We did work on this in small groups.  Our external facilitator took us through the scenario development process where we identified a series of big impact but pretty uncertain drivers of change over the next few years.  These were the things that we would use to stimulate our thinking about what might happen. 

We selected four possible scenarios to consider in depth.  We thought about what our world would look like if these things happened, and what Brook’s response might be: what Brook would look like, what key stakeholders would expect from us, and so on. 

All of the outputs from the day were captured in a summary paper (PDF) which includes our ideas about the four scenarios, plus, importantly, the things Brook would need to do whatever the scenario.  We also recorded the key messages from the Board to feed into the next stages of strategy development. 

What did this experience give you?

This gave us a number of things:

  • the opportunity to look beyond the operational; given the nature of our business we are very good at operational
  • it gave the Board a sense of their wider responsibilities, with a strategic view of the organisation
  • it helped the Board find their voice; the experience of working on this together gave them a sense of collective expertise, creativity, punch
  • for all of us it made us feel like we had some control over our destiny in key areas: some things would stay the same, some would change and we would be dependent on other people/groups
  • it also made us realise that for some things, no-one knew what the answer was; it gave us permission not to know.

So where are you with your strategy now?

Eighteen months on, and we have just published our strategic framework for the next 10 years. The scenarios work sits as an important input.  It kick-started interest and excitement in strategy and strategy development. It threw up a range of issues around our understanding of the vision and mission of Brook, and allowed people to see strategy as more than tweaking the future plans - an opportunity to go right back to the beginning.

We followed the scenarios day with a two-day Network Managers workshop, taking the ideas forward. Once everyone understood the reasons behind the drivers we could work together to produce this framework, separate from the operational plan, that everyone could own: the strategic framework.

People have remained engaged throughout the process, and even today we remember things that were said by those that came to talk to us. A lot of learning went on through the process, which is widely seen as being very open – a lot of which is down to the way in which we kicked it off – with the scenarios work.

(Help with reading PDFs - Adobe conversion tool is a free way to convert PDFs to web pages so you can read them online.)

Page last edited Jul 25, 2017

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