How to create an “edge of cliff” scenario analysis to prevent big problems from occurring

“I’m afraid of what I don’t know,” the CEO of the rapidly growing company said to me as I advised him one day.

“And I’m afraid of what I can’t see.”

He feared dire circumstances could occur and wipe out his thriving company.

This CEO was worried enough that he longed for a good early warning system he could use…if there were a way to create one.

I created an early warning system for him, one we ended up calling the “edge of cliff analysis” because it addressed his key fears for his company…and a few others he had not thought about.

It was a tool he and the company reached for, and used, for years afterwards.

To create the “edge of cliff analysis,” and to make sure it worked well for them, I worked with a wide range of people at the company to understand serious and unexpressed fears they had for their company.

It was like uncovering and understanding a high-risk puzzle, and then providing an action-oriented dashboard to guide them.

It helped them prioritize improvements that would reduce the most likely risks to the company, while providing them significant measures, and the ability to use them well, in order to help them know if problems were starting to emerge.

And then we made sure the decision-making and prioritization framework is one that people inside the company could and would use. (And they continued to reach for and use it, I heard through the grapevine, for years afterwards).

Do you, too, long for a sense of command in otherwise challenging and unpredictable circumstances?

Do you ever wish for an early warning system such as this CEO did?

If so, here are the basic steps we used to create this rapidly growing company’s early warning system:

Start with your fears

We called this the “edge of cliff” analysis, and started with the CEO’s greatest fears.

He had lived with heavy but ambiguous worry for some time.

He hadn’t yet articulated his fears clearly, and this step alone, of articulating his worries, helped turn them into something actionable, and something positive.

Turn them into scenarios

We considered his worst-case scenarios and the probable consequences of each for his clients and company.

We also considered best-case scenarios (they are so much more fun to think about…and we needed those, too, for a bit of relief in this work).

And then we considered what would happen if the best scenarios turned out, in real life, to be even better than we dreamt. We also considered situations where something far, far worse than the worst that he feared happened.

This stretched our sense of what the early warning system needed to accommodate, and to flag for preventative, or adaptive action.

Make your early warning system goal clear

Identify what you want your early warning system to do for you.

Next, consider who will use the information, and what they will hopefully do with it.

Check in with the future users of the information to see what they need in order to make the information easy for them to use to identify and take the right actions.

Gather external information

In this client project, I had to find a proxy for customer satisfaction and frustrations, in lieu of talking directly to their customers.

I looked to see what promises the company made, or implied, to their customers through their marketing and advertising materials.

This told me what processes inside the company had to work flawlessly, under all different circumstances, no matter what was happening outside the company.


Working with the leadership team, I verified and clarified which processes had to be top-notch in order for them to continue to thrive.

We mapped this to the most likely scenarios they might face, and identified which processes put them at highest risk, if they were not strengthened and improved.

Organize and communicate

We organized and simplified the work, making it easy to understand and use.

We had no interest in creating a system that just looked good on paper. We wanted one that would be successful in real life and real business.

Next, we trained people, helping them see what valuable part they played in making the early warning system work successfully, and do what it was intended to do to keep the company safe and thriving.

The early warning system turned out to be a combination of crystal ball, fire drill, and strategic change management system all rolled into one.

If you’d like more information about how to do a scenario analysis, or how to do an “edge of cliff” analysis for your business, let me know.


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