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What Is an Operational Scenario?

M. McGee
M. McGee

An operational scenario is one part of a very complex field called scenario planning. The process starts with a goal such as testing consumer reaction to a new product or seeing the readiness of an organization to handle a crisis. Next, information is gathered relating to the test subject. The scenario makers then determine what sorts of things are possible outcomes based on the information at hand. They construct the operational scenario for the purpose of testing the subject goal. People outside of the group of designers then move through the scenario as though it were actually occurring.

This process began as a form of military intelligence gathering and training. The military could design war games that would simulate real-world conditions to see how the subjects handled the stress. These games provided two major pieces of information. First, the people in charge could accurately see the strengths and weaknesses of those involved and assign them future tasks accordingly. Second, preparedness against unexpected strategies could be tested in a safe, but still accurate, situation.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

These principles entered the private sector in the field of scenario planning. Outside of a shift away from war strategy, the two fields are still very similar. The end goal of the process is the operational scenario. This is the actual experiment with real people and real activities, but it is far from the first step.

Before the operational scenario can begin, it is important to know as much information about the situation as possible. In a disaster readiness situation, the scenario planners need to know exactly what should happen in order to see what may happen. If the building has multiple layers of redundant power, the scenario planners need to take that into account; otherwise, the operational scenario won’t be accurate.

The scenario is constructed in layers of ‘if-then’ statements. The builders look into any and all probable participant actions and determine how the scenario will react to them. They will also look into generic responses to cover unexpected actions or plans. The process ends up as a figurative maze of options; if X person does Y, then Z happens.

As the last step, a group of people are placed inside a situation that mimics a potential real-world one. The participants move through the operational scenario as though it was real, making each decision as though it had actual long-term consequences. In the above disaster scenario, the people will have to stay cool, contact the necessary authorities, escape any immediate threats and so on. Often, these are continuous layers of tests; when one situation is overcome, another will present itself immediately.

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