Failures of strategy are too often failures to anticipate a reality different from what we are prepared or willing to see. So, how best to challenge prevailing wisdom and assess emerging opportunities and threats?”

Jim Austin, principal at Decision Strategies International, posed this question to participants at the annual meeting of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) last fall.

One tool to use in developing business strategy for an unknown future, Austin says, is something known as scenario planning.

Austin is a business consultant who helps a variety of businesses, including Fortune 500 companies, get to the heart of strategic challenges. AABP invited him to help veterinarians examine how they might utilize scenario planning to help imagine alternative futures in order to more effectively develop business strategies for long term success.

Up front, Austin emphasizes he’s not from agriculture. His world is business with an expertise in health care companies. But he’s worked with enough companies across a wide enough range of industries to know that scenario planning can be useful to all businesses.

Generally speaking, scenario planning involves developing a reasonable range of alternative futures for a business based upon rational assumptions about variables likely to affect the business.

Jim Austin, principal at Decision Strategies International“Scenario planning starts from the future and works back, and in that process ideally reveals more creative opportunities for sustainable veterinary practice success,” Austin explains. It clarifies and jump-starts discussions about specific strategies.

“Scenarios are portrayals of a series of plausible alternative futures. Each scenario tells a story of how various forces might interact under certain conditions,” Austin explains. “They are designed to open up new ways of thinking about the future, providing a framework for strategic dialogue as the basis for strategic action.”

Incidentally, Austin says business-building strategies seek the sustained competitive advantages outlined by Michael Porter of Harvard Business School in the 1970s. In Porter’s mind—and the business world since then—competitive business advantage boils down to lower cost or differentiation. Competitive advantages create value and are difficult for competitors to copy.

“Any business can meet short term needs by cutting costs, reducing offerings or playing cash management games such as extending accounts payable while driving ever more stringent accounts receivable terms,” Austin explains. “These are, at best, short term responses to changing markets or increasing competition.

According to Austin, strategies that succeed over the long term answer:

  • What markets, channels, geographies are we focusing on?
  • Within those target markets and segments, why will anyone choose us over the competition?

Preparing for an unknown future

In his AABP presentation and in the subsequent proceedings, Austin offered the examples depicted in Figure 1 and Figure 2, using a couple of reasonable uncertainties faced by veterinary practices: regional agricultural economies and the level and type of services offered. Constructing a matrix, those two variables point to four alternative futures.

veterinary market in 2020

what is a  successful vet practices in 2020

Assuming a practice is currently profitable, most would welcome Scenario A as the most business friendly. Regional economies are growing stronger, while competition remains fairly static. As such, strategies for growth could include working harder, expanding the client base, raising prices and maybe even adding staff in an effort to do more of the same.

Conversely, Scenario D likely would be the most challenging future. Regional economies grow weaker while competition with newer technology increases. Potential strategies for that scenario, according to Austin:

  • Emphasize consulting and preventative care, targeting a few large customers.
  • Employ fewer, less expensive staff members.
  • Focus on more protocol-driven practices, possibly located on-site of major clients.
  • Seek to establish “value” for customers as the customer defines value. This revolves around working with customers who want a high value, mutual partnership with the veterinarian.

Rather than guessing which of the alternative futures is most likely, Austin emphasizes the question becomes how you would prepare your practice to be successful no matter which future occurs.

“The typical reaction when presented a range of potential futures is to try and guess which future is more likely, especially if they challenge what we see today,” Austin explains. “But, scenarios are not predictors; they outline a range of possible outcomes for veterinarians and their clients to assess:

  • Where might there be unforeseen opportunities and threats?
  • What should my practice be prepared for, and how could we be blindsided?
  • Is our current strategy sustainable across multiple different futures, or is it really predicated on running harder in the current world? What happens if things change?

 “None of us can know the future; we’re all prisoners of our past. It’s hard to get beyond what we’ve done in the past,” Austin says. “Scenario planning is one tool to help us step outside of today and look at things differently.”