Brexit lesson: Focus on consequences, not cause in scenario planning

Companies large and small knew there would be one of two outcomes in the U.K.’s European Union referendum last week. They knew it would be close, and in the days leading up to the vote, many polls indicated that the U.K. would remain in the European Union. But when the votes were counted, the decision had gone the other way: Leave.

The vote underscored an important lesson in corporate strategy: While companies can’t predict what the future holds, they can revisit and intensify their scenario planning around risk. Even if they don’t know exactly what events will create new risks and opportunities, creating scenarios and considering possible courses of action is better than a read-and-react or wait-and-hope strategy.

“The reality is we don’t have any better crystal ball than anybody else,” FedEx CEO Fred Smith said on a June 21 earnings call, days before Thursday’s referendum.

Organizations sometimes think of enterprise risk management as a project. “They do it once [a year] and they’re done,” said Mark Beasley, CPA, a professor of enterprise risk management and director of North Carolina State University’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) Initiative. “Big events force us to refresh our thinking about ERM needing to be a continual process.”

Organizations can sometimes get bogged down in the details of an event. Beasley recommends that companies think more about what would happen if, for example, they couldn’t sell their product for a day, a week, a month, or ever again. Instead of wondering what unknown event could lead to a sales interruption, have a plan in place for the repercussions.

In other words: Instead of thinking only about the cause, think about the consequences.

If companies are robust in risk planning, they should be somewhat prepared for major consequences, regardless of the cause, Beasley said. Essentially, the name of the event that causes a plan to be carried out, such as hedging on currency or using a new route or mode of transport to deliver products, is left blank. “Even though [companies] wouldn’t have had the scenario ‘Brexit,’ they would have a scenario about a currency drop or a market drop,” Beasley said.

Scenario planning became more important for companies after the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Since then, even in an era of growth in equity markets, volatility has become the norm in business. David Axson, a managing director of Accenture’s Strategy, Finance & Enterprise Performance practice, said the Brexit news is just another disruptive event in a world full of them. Response will vary by company and by region, but the importance to plan for such upheaval remains.

“It’s good stewardship to be aware of the possible implications under a range of different scenarios,” Axson said.

A tool for better planning

Scenario planning can be an orderly process, even though part of it involves embracing uncertainty. A CGMA report and tool, Scenario Planning: Providing Insight for Impact, offers six steps for organizations to take:

Neil Amato (namato@aicpa.org) is a JofA senior editor.

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