The Value of Playbooks Based on Scenario-Based Learning

Providing a quality product or service requires the coordination and balance of hundreds of discrete, interrelated steps. An error or oversight at any point in the process can contribute to a domino effect that ultimately could have disastrous outcomes. To avoid this, organizations can benefit from scenario-based learning that provides team members’ with hand’s on experience to address issues that may arise relevant to their role and the tasks they must complete, as well as the opportunity to contribute to successful results. These scenarios can then be used to create workflows, or playbooks, for their teams to ensure consistency and positive outcomes.

Scenario-based learning, also called problem-based learning, provides an opportunity for teams to work though and identify solutions to authentic, complex or ill-structured problems.[i] This requires critical thinking and analytical, problem solving skills.[ii] Participating in the process empowers individuals and teams to consider multiple scenarios in a risk-free setting and allows them to see how project outcomes are affected by the decisions made at each stage in the process.[iii] By pre-emptively considering a wide range of scenarios before issues become real-life problems, teams can work together in an environment free from counterproductive emotions that create tension and muddy the process. Instead, they can focus on the decision-making process and how and when to escalate to achieve targeted outcomes.

The need for escalation occurs from not knowing who owns a problem. Operational scenarios alleviate this problem by working through various alternatives to identify the best and most effective route, which becomes institutionalized in the playbook. This also helps overcome poor managerial decisions by those who are more likely to pass off decision making rather than empower their team to solve their own problems.[iv] For these managers, escalation is the norm rather than the exception, when the reverse is the optimal goal.

A scenario-based playbook encourages problem solving and provides the necessary training and support to increase accountability. This increases the reliability of decision making[v] and helps alleviate the uncertainty that comes with change because team members know what is expected of them and can react immediately.[vi] Each “play” represents a way of doing something that moves the task forward in a direction that will improve outcomes.[vii] A playbook may refer to a simple but critical task or a complex project, or it might be updated to reflect a minor change or a complete overhaul. Having clear, written guidelines is critical, especially in a crisis situation, so that employees are all on the same page and work toward the same results. It makes them accountable in their roles, lets them know when issues should be escalated, and identifies the specific processes and systems that should be engaged in doing so.

This approach is more critical than ever in times of uncertainty because having defined positions, responsibilities, and processes becomes even more imperative to provide crucial consistency and accountability when it is most needed. Organizations and their leadership benefit because it allows them to plan ahead for future events, both intended and unintended. Their informed decisions can better direct allocation of staffing, budgets, and other critical resources in advance of imminent challenges, [viii]ensuring responsiveness and reliability in how actions ultimately will be undertaken.[ix] While playbooks provide the important guidelines for task completion, they also recognize the value of human involvement in decision making and how that maximizes the effectiveness of human-machine interface. This will continue to be an area of growth and development as machine learning advances and becomes more indoctrinated in the workplace.

So, if you’re not already doing it, find time to incorporate scenario-based learning as part of employee development. The benefits far outweigh the costs and, in fact, are more likely to result in a long-term cost savings. Scenario-based playbooks are a proactive means of empowering employees to action by eliminating any confusion about who’s in charge, what to do, and how to get it done. Employees and teams know what is expected of them and are knowingly and willingly accountable for their part in the process, benefitting everyone across organizational levels.


[i] Rosenbaum, H., & Shermis, M. (2010). Making a case for scenario-based learning in IS and executive education. Paper presented at the 16th Americas Conference on Information Systems, Lima, Peru.

[ii] Noroozi, AL, Khakzad, N. Khan, F., MacKinnon, S., & Abbassi, R. (2013). The role of human error in risk analysis: Application of pre- and post-maintenance procedures of process facilities. Reliability Engineering and System Safety, 119, 251-258.

[iii] Stewart, T. (nd). Scenario-based learning. Massey University, University of New Zealand.

[iv] Grenny, J. (2017). When to solve your team’s problems, and when to let them sort it out. Harvard Business Review.

[v] Accenture. (2016). Scenario-based planning: Exploring the best chance on success. Accenture Insights.

[vi] Accenture

[vii] Notter, J. (2018). Creating a playbook for improving employee engagement. Forbes.

[viii] Office of Personnel Management. (nd). Scenario-based workforce planning. Office of Personnel Management Human Capital Framework.

[ix] Accenture