New Scenario Planning For 21st Century Dynamics

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The current world crises in the Ukraine and Syria, demonstrate a failure of US (and world)  leaders to engage in scenario planning for crises that occur in a flat, interrelated world, where traditional military and financial sanctions no longer work.

Every leader finds his/her feet held to the fire when the world changes and a crisis requires a quick response. Clarity of mission and scenario planning are critical.

Decades ago, Johnson and Johnson’s leadership had a crisis they didn’t anticipate. Someone was tampering with Tylenol bottles in a few retail outlets. The result illness a a few deaths. Johnson & Johnson could have decided to “study the issue”   – but it didn’t. Recognizing that its Consumer Service Mission puts the customer first (I.e., “We will delight our consumers, treating each person who contacts us as if they are our only consumer, providing them with a response which is evidence of our interest and that leaves them with the clear understanding that they are important to us.) They immediately recalled all Tylenol bottles on anyone’s shelves and began developing a tamper-proof cap. The effort immediately cost the company a lot of money and market share; but after the new bottle was available J&J was able to regain lost market share and more – because it no had enormous good will with the public. Immediately, after that, Public & Investor Relations firms doubled down on scenario planning with clients to help them in case similar and other scenarios exist.*

Several foreign policy experts state that President Putin is using a traditional 19th and 20th century framework to grab territory in the Crimea and support President Assad as his forces kill innocent Syrians in order to stay in power. Traditional responses would be military; indeed creating a “redline” is consistent with that scenario.   But as the Syrian crisis showed, the United States doesn’t want to use the Military option. Not surprising, Russia’s effort to grab and annex the Crimea, follows his assessments that the US will not use military power to stop him, just as it didn’t when he similarly took control of former parts of Georgia.

Immediately, President Obama stated we would instead use financial sanctions. Ten days later, nothing publicly has been announced. Why? Because in this flat – interrelated world, imposing commonly used sanctions will not work: Important people and companies within European countries would be hurt if sanctions were imposed; further, several companies and countries have interests in Russia, and Putin can respond by imposing sanctions on them.W hat we’re watching now is what happens when we’re not prepared – when we haven’t thought through the scenario options and prepared for them.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President Kennedy had three options: let the Soviets continue installing missiles in Cuba, fight a war over it – which might have gone nuclear, or create a third alternative – an embargo, in which the build-up would stop and both sides could walk away. (Part of the deal is that we had a bargaining chip – missiles in Turkey that we agreed to remove later.)

However, the current crisis in the Ukraine ends, it’s clear we need fresh scenario planning to face these kinds of issues in the future. We need to be prepared to use new approaches beyond traditional military and financial options. Not acting quickly only strengthens the confidence of the aggressor – and that’s what inaction does every day.

What do you think?  What options do you think the US and European countries could use? Let’s discuss.