We don’t have enough money. Elections are coming up and a new City Council will change everything. If we lose any more members we will cease to function.

Threats, weaknesses, and fears will paralyze a team. How can you think about goals when you are not even sure you will exist next year or even next quarter? And, paradoxically, if you don’t think about goals, you will cease to exist because you will lose sight of why you are here and what is worth working on.

When I work with teams on strategic planning, I am often coming in at a point when the team feels stuck. Morale is low. Productivity is stalled out. Conversations at meetings begin circling the drain with talk of rebranding or an endless search for new funding. It is the organizational equivalent of having a diet-related health issue and spending your days scrolling Pinterest for vegan recipes.

How do we get unstuck?

One exercise I like to do with teams is to build on a traditional SWOT exercise with scenario planning. In the SWOT you identify your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This is usually easy for a team, especially the weaknesses and threats. Do not spend too much time on this. You can also have team members bring a list with them so that you do not need to spend any time on it at the meeting.

Once you have the SWOT, you can use the Opportunities and Threats for a scenario planning exercise. Divide your group into small teams (2-4 people) and give them each one opportunity or threat to work on.

An example of a threat may be: “We lose funding from Grant A”. Let’s pretend Grant A currently makes up 40% of your operational funding as a department. Tell the team to pretend like they are in the future (1-3 years depending on what is most realistic for that threat). This threat has become reality. You lost the funding. What does the team and your work look like? How has this changed what you do or how you operate? What is your next move?


Some teams will have opportunities. An example of an opportunity may be: “An amazing philanthropic foundation has just decided to invest heavily in our work and has funded us at 300% of our current funding for the next 10 years”. Just as with the threats, tell the team to pretend like they are in the future after this has already come to pass. In this case, three years into the 10 year funding cycle. What does the team and your work look like? How has this changed what you do or how you operate? What is your next move?

Use the opportunities and threats that the team has brainstormed. If you have several, have the team rank them first and start with the most likely, most pressing, or most concerning ones.

Give each team 10-12 minutes to discuss the scenario together. Then have the teams take turns presenting their analysis. Alternate the presentations between the opportunities and threats scenarios.

When I have facilitated this exercise with groups, I find it opens up a great creative discussion about the future. The teams often realize that whether the news is good or bad they are still faced with some of the same challenges. They are able to hone in on priorities for where to spend their time instead of getting stuck in the “what ifs”.

If you try this with your group, please share how it works for you and what you observe. I would love to know.

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