How Scenario Planning Future-Proofs Finance

Understanding a company’s key variables and how to react to different outcomes can help leaders respond to future challenges—and succeed in turbulent times.

Considering all that’s happened over the last year, the case for robust scenario planning has rarely been stronger. Scenario planning—the practice of establishing strategies for variables in key business factors—helps organizations thrive amid uncertainty. To put it simply, scenario planning arms finance with the ability to incorporate responses as changes happen. 

Without the ability to adjust revenue and expense assumptions over time, model multiple scenarios simultaneously, or see the impacts of new markets, staffing changes, or regulations, companies won’t have the ability to weather whatever comes next—much less respond to changes in real time.

In a recent webinar by the Association for Financial Professionals, two panelists explored the value of scenario planning and management in modern finance.

“COVID-19 has been described as being the great accelerator and really has forced all of us to do some sort of scenario or contingency planning over the last year,” said Jack Alexander, a former CFO turned adviser, author, and coach. “And my hope is that finance and operating executives will utilize scenario planning broadly in the future and integrate those more into the key planning and management activities.” 

Alexander described working with a client pre-pandemic that was facing two major uncertainties. “In this case, the company was unsure whether the economy would continue to expand or contract, and they also had a significant contract that was up for recompete. So they had basically four possible scenarios on a two-by-two matrix combining those two uncertainties,” he said. “And then I also encourage the development of a black swan scenario too—low-probability, high-impact events—and that sort of covers things including what happened with COVID.”

Kinnari Desai, vice president and head of corporate finance at Workday, described a multistep process for accelerating the scenario planning process.

Align Leaders’ Top Priorities

First, organizations need to identify their top two or three priorities. “This could be top-line growth, margins, or cash flow, but it’s very important to be clear on those upfront,” Desai said. “We get perspectives from our executive team and align with them on what is important.” 

It’s also critical to understand what is top of mind for business leaders, whether they’re in sales, services, G&A, technology, or other departments. “We need to ensure we have scenarios that are relevant cross-functionally and not only within finance,” she said. “This really helps us incorporate multiple perspectives and inputs into what is important, and we know where that knowledge belongs.”

“We need to ensure we have scenarios that are relevant cross-functionally and not only within finance.”

Kinnari Desai Vice President and Head of Corporate Finance Workday

Alexander echoed Desai’s process of speaking to the C-suite to understand competitive threats, market forces, and developing factors, as well as key personnel who have a view of such areas as critical raw materials and supply chains. “So it really has to be a broad participation across all functions,” he said.

Identify Key Drivers of Sustained Value Creation

Another key step is to perform analyses to pinpoint the relevance of important factors and focus on the ones that matter. “How much could they influence the outcome? We also get an understanding of which variables and outcomes can be controlled in a short timespan versus ones that will take longer to pivot,” Desai said. “We do not try to optimize every variable but just focus on the ones that matter incrementally, and then we bring them all together in our scenarios.”

Bring in External Data Where Relevant

Finance should develop a perspective that is informed by outside data. “It could be from industry, our peers, customers, economic data,” Desai said. “And at Workday, we use our software called Workday Prism Analytics, and that helps us marry this external data to our internal data, which informs our scenarios.” 

Evaluate the Frequency of Scenario Planning and Adjust Accordingly

“Not all variables, as we know, change on a similar cadence. Some need weekly attention, some monthly, or some even daily,” she said. “And our finance organization combines this power of scenario planning and continuous planning, which allows us to move in an agile fashion.”

Desai added that while there are many variables that impact the business, not all of them have a material impact. For her team, the top six variables garnered most of their attention. “And then we spent all our time understanding how they were going to shift,” she said. “Now, no one has a crystal ball, but the best we could do was to determine how those six variables would move. And those were the big rocks for us that were going to change our outcomes, not the 15 others.”

Three Elements to Enable Agility

Alexander’s approach emphasizes three elements: vision, recognition, and response—all of which are aided by scenario planning and lead to better business agility. 

“Even in terms of the vision, it helps because you're going to be identifying critical assumptions, and you're going to consider alternative outcomes other than the primary plan,” he said. “And if you combine that with business intelligence, external outlooks, a focus on customers and competitors, that really helps.”

A multiphase approach to scenario planning involves vision, recognition, and response—all of which lead to better business agility.

As a year of uncertainty has shown, organizations better able to adapt to rapidly changing environments are often more optimally positioned to withstand crises or uncertainty. In order to build organizational resiliency, scenario planning performed correctly can help the enterprise identify its key business factors, take into account critical cross-functional needs, and create the agility necessary not only to survive, but to succeed.

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