There’s an ancient Chinese proverb, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Earlier in my career, I used to make sure this phrase was added to the cover page whenever I produced a marketing or strategic plan—unless, that is, I didn’t think my boss at the time would be receptive to a little sardonic humor before he had even read the table of contents. Not every CEO would appreciate the idea this quotation was meant to convey, namely:

Yes, boss, here’s my plan, but please don’t expect us to be able to execute it in every detail. Why not? Because as the year progresses, we’re bound to learn more about things going on in our markets, understand our customers better than we do right now, and, with luck, identify one or two interesting new opportunities that happen to come along. We’ll also find out how our competitors will react to what we’re doing. And last, along the way, we’re sure to be confronted with some unforeseen events, too. In other words, contact with the enemy (or, to use the layman’s term, reality) means that our plan (excellent though it may be!) might have to be revised on the fly.

“Unforeseen events”—now there’s a phrase to fill the heart of any strategic planner with dread! Even if your plan creatively takes into account a range of well-thought-out future scenarios, you can’t avoid the possibility that something totally unexpected ...

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