Scenario Planning

GLISA’s scenario planning approach describes plausible future events and has actors (i.e., stakeholders) respond to them. The goal is to account for uncertainty by developing a framework to plan for potentially disastrous disruptions, rather than only focusing on specific, likely outcomes. When focusing only on likely events, actors discount other high-risk scenarios. Planning for multiple plausible futures, including extremes, can increase the robustness of management practices and preparedness for climate change impacts.

GLISA partnered with Great Lakes city adaptation practitioners to produce a set of plausible climate scenarios to aid in city and local planning. These scenarios and an accompanying workbook of exercises can be found here.

About Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is a method to manage uncertainty, especially high-risk events. It has been used by the U.S. military, the energy sector, and NASA.1 2 The development of modern scenario planning occurred in the 1950s, and was designed by Herman Kahn, a researcher from the Rand Corporation. Kahn helped the United States government explore possibilities besides “annihilation and surrender” for unthinkable situations (e.g., nuclear war) through the use of scenarios. Later, Royal Dutch/Shell Oil Company used scenarios to help navigate the uncertain business world. Their development of scenarios was one of the first well-known successes in their field. Stepping away from the usual business forecasting method and relying on scenario planning made them more resilient during the oil embargo in 1973 compared to other companies. 3 Scenario planning creates a framework to consider several novel situations, not just what may be expected based on the past, leading to increased preparation for any plausible future, even if event probabilities are low.

Most importantly, scenario planning is process that brings together practitioners, who need science-based information about the future, and experts, who can translate and communicate available relevant science.  In GLISA’s experience, two conditions are necessary for a successful scenario planning process.  First, the scenarios and solution strategies must be collaboratively created by all relevant stakeholders. It is important that anyone who may be asked to integrate the scenarios into their work and/or use them in planning is included in the process – this way they have ownership of the scenarios. Making sure the right stakeholders are included in the process is primarily the responsibility of practitioner, since they are most familiar with the types of information needed and stakeholder roles in the decision making processes. Additional outside expertise should be solicited as needed and may draw from existing networks of specialists or practitioners in similar fields. Second, management goals must be clearly defined from the beginning of the process, because the development of the scenarios depends completely on the definition of management goals and challenges that the scenarios are intended to address. If management goals are vague or abstract it will be more difficult to develop customized scenarios that are meaningful and actionable.

GLISA’s Scenario Planning Approach

GLISA’s scenario planning approach builds on the methods used by the National Park Service (NPS), whom we partnered with for the first time in 2012. Our partnership with Isle Royale National Park integrated climate information into NPS’s scenario planning approach for evaluating potential impacts on the wolf and moose populations.4 Important to this approach was the formal consideration of competing management priorities, so that climate scenarios were explored to manage, strategically, NPS’s mission.

Our approach is designed to produce a set of climate scenarios that are directly relevant to management decisions and future uncertainty. The goal is to develop a strategic framework to respond to potentially disastrous disruptions, rather than to develop a checklist to respond to specific, likely disruptions. When focused on likely events, scenario planning is focused on known threats; a focus on plausible events extends the method to unknown events.  

The entire scenario planning process typically unfolds over several weeks to months, depending on the amount of new data and information that must be collected and synthesized and the response time of all participants in the process. This process requires a lead practitioner who determines the desired goals of the scenario development process, including a scenario planning workshop. The lead practitioner then works with participating stakeholders to identify management concerns or vulnerabilities they wish to evaluate, based on the outlined goals. This information is communicated to GLISA, who then develops baseline climate scenarios tailored to the group’s goals and concerns, taking into account any data needs that are expressed. These climate scenarios provide the foundation for the workshop exercises, where the stakeholders collaborate to build out the scenarios to incorporate management concerns, disruptive weather events, impacts, and subsequent management actions or recommendations. After the workshop, stakeholders can incorporate possible adaptation and/or mitigation actions into the custom scenarios to guide future management decisions.

The following tabs offers an overview of the roles that the lead practitioner, stakeholders, and GLISA fulfill during the scenario planning process and the outputs of each phase. Information about scenario development and workshop exercises is available here.

Pre-Workshop Roles & Outputs
Expectations of the lead practitioner Expectations of GLISA Outputs
  • Identify the desired goals of workshop and scenario development.
  • Recruit relevant stakeholders for the scenario planning workshop.
  • GLISA typically does not engage directly with any stakeholder participants, beyond the lead practitioner, prior to the workshop.
  • Identify key management concerns and/or vulnerabilities that could include exposure and/or sensitivity to disruptive weather and/or climate events.
  • Relay management concerns and any specific data requirements to GLISA for the development of baseline climate scenarios.
  • Facilitate conversations with the lead practitioner to collect information about the problem(s) they are trying to solve.
  • Take an inventory of their data needs.
  • Develop baseline climate scenarios and background information.
  • A description of the primary management concerns and examples of how management has been impacted by disruptive weather and/or climate events in the past.
  • A set of baseline climate scenarios tailored to management concerns.
Workshop Roles & Outputs
Expectations of the lead practitioner Expectations of GLISA Outputs
  • Convene all relevant stakeholders and prepare for and facilitate a climate scenario workshop (1⁄2 to full day). 
    • The primary facilitator should ideally be someone that all participants are familiar with and trust.
    • Provide suitable accommodations for workshop attendees to break-out into groups for the scenario planning exercises.
    • Secure the necessary AV equipment for presentations.
    • Provide refreshments or meals for longer workshops.
  • Provide workbook and printed materials.
  • Present overview of scenario planning process and desired outcomes.
  • Facilitate scenario planning exercises with break-out groups.
  • Climate scenario narratives customized by workshop participants (may need further refinement or synthesizing after the workshop).
  • Descriptions of climate impacts related to each scenario.
Post-Workshop Roles & Outputs
Expectations of the lead practitioner Expectations of GLISA Outputs
  • Assess whether goals determined by project leads at the start of the project were met.
  • Document and share workshop outcomes and lessons learned.
  • Assess and implement management decisions/recommendations.
  • Distribute post-workshop surveys.
  • Follow up with lead practitioner to ensure that all GLISA deliverables have been met. 
  • Review any write-ups or summaries from the project for accuracy of climate information.
  • Summary of survey results (primarily to aid GLISA in improving their approach).
  • Documentation of workshop outcomes and lessons learned (if produced by the practitioner)

Video overview of GLISA’s scenario planning approach

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Featured Example

For the first time in 2018, GLISA applied our approach to a Michigan Army National Guard installation in Battle Creek, MI. Per Department of Defense requirements, installations must implement an Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan (INRMP) and update it regularly, and National Guard leadership wanted to incorporate climate change and adaptation into their next IMRMP update. To do this, GLISA formalized our scenario planning process and deployed it with the Fort Custer Training Center (FCTC). We lead a scenario planning workshop in October 2018 where we guided natural resource managers through a process of learning about local climate trends and future projections to identify weather and/or climate events that challenge their management of specific natural resources (i.e., invasive species, high quality natural areas, etc.). This scenario planning exercise identified management goals, mapped environmental hazards to these goals, and prioritized threats. The participants used the scenarios to identify priority management concerns and make management recommendations by group, including increasing variability and flexibility of prescribed burn programs, buffering wetlands, storing water in times of stress, and re-imagining road networks to avoid vulnerable resources. FCTC won the 2020 Department of Defense Environmental Award for Natural Resource Conservation for the Plan, partly for being the first installation nationwide to include climate information. View additional project resources on GLISA’s site or read GLISA’s impact story for this work.


  1. Cann, Anne. 2010. Scenario‐Based Strategic Planning in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Program. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Institute for Water Resources.
  2. Cornelius, P., A. Van de Putte, et al. 2005. Three Decades of Scenario Planning in Shell. California Management Review 48(1) 92-109.,%20P.,%20A.%20Van%20de%20Putte,%20et%20al.,%202005,%20California%20Management%20Review%2048(1)%2092-109.pdf.
  3. Wack P (1985) The gentle art of reperceiving. Scenarios, uncharted waters ahead. Harvard Business Review Sept/Oct: 73–89; and Scenarios, shooting the rapids Harvard Business Review Nov/Dec: 139–50.
  4. Fisichelli, N., C. Hawkins-Hoffman, L. Welling, L. Briley, and R. Rood. 2013. Using climate change scenarios to explore management at Isle Royale National Park: January 2013 workshop report. Natural Resource Report NPS/ NRSS/CCRP/NRR—2013/714. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.