Building Organizational Muscle Memory With “What If” Exercises.

Being a healthy organization isn’t just about the balance sheet. Just like being a healthy person isn’t about how much you weigh. A lot of hard work goes into both, a lot of trial and error, a lot of ingenuity, consistency and accountability. Recently I was preparing to present at an event, a portion of which included a discussion around scenario planning. In case you’re not familiar with scenario planning, it’s a strategic exercise intended to help organizations navigate uncertainty by focusing on a very simple but poignant question, “What If?” Being the person that I am, I was curious as to how and where this practice started. The concept is a no-brainer given our current business landscape.

Scenario planning is not a recent invention. It’s actually been around since the 1950’s and the brainchild of the Shell Company. If you’ve never thought of Shell as anything but your neighborhood gas station, think again. Shell has been around since the early 1900’s which is a feat in and of itself considering the average lifespan of an organization continues to decrease because of deteriorated relevancy. Shell has been on the forefront of innovation for decades and has done much more than refine oil and put gas in our cars. Now on their 2nd female CEO in the company’s history, they were one of the first companies to “put women in the driver’s seat” in the 1920’s (among other things). Shell has embedded scenario planning in to their DNA, consistently practicing the “What If” exercise, so that employees and leaders can build organizational muscle memory. Simply stated, muscle memory is being able to do something without having to think about it because you’ve repeated the action and practiced it so many times. Do you think this might have something to do with their nearly 100 year existence and position in the global innovation landscape? Probably so.

Many organizations are struggling right now with the challenge of sustaining or rebuilding their health. While you can’t compete with 50 years of practice, it might be a great time to start utilizing some scenario planning to navigate what’s ahead.

  • What if every employee learned a new skill in the next 6 months?
  • What if every leader shared a best practice in the next 30 days?
  • What if every high potential individual contributor mentored a junior employee for the next year?
  • What if every department found one way to cut expenses by 2%, 5% or more?

The list could go on but hopefully you get the point. Would any of these things make a difference in future of your organization?

I’m keeping my eye on Shell. Market volatility has severely challenged the oil industry and last week, for the first time since WWII, Shell made a decision to cut dividends to shareholders by two-thirds causing their stock price to plunge by 8%. This said, I have to believe there were a lot of what if’s that went into this decision. Like what if we choose losing dividend shareholders over debt? We shall see how things work out for them. In the meantime, take to the virtual boardroom with your own scenario planning.

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