What international and domestic partnerships does the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) need to foster? What maritime policies are needed to ensure the safe and secure flow of goods? What are the demands on the Coast Guard in responding to Arctic and polar region incidents? What capabilities are needed to enable the service to be more agile in executing its missions? To plan for the future, the USCG needs a strategy for today.
Several years ago, the Coast Guard committed to developing a method for anticipating the full range of plausible future operating environments it may face. Project Evergreen is the result of almost two decades of Coast Guard experience with scenario-based strategy development.
The Evergreen Cycle of Continuous Strategic Renewal
Led by the Office of Strategic Analysis (sometimes referred to as the commandant’s in-house “think-tank”), Project Evergreen is a cyclical process. The development of future scenarios and the renewal of the Coast Guard’s strategic direction is implemented in a four-year cycle, structured around the commandant’s tenure. The timing is such that each commandant is provided the opportunity to choose the next set of planning scenarios during the first year of his or her tenure. The effort to embed strategic intent and nurture strategy implementation, however, is an enduring part of Project Evergreen throughout the cycle.
A core team of about 25 people within the Service, facilitated by a team of contractors from the Futures Strategy Group, conduct eight months of deep-dive research of emerging geopolitical, environmental, social, and technological trends both within and outside the Coast Guard. Concurrently, contractors conduct a hundred or more interviews of internal and external stakeholders gaining insights into USCG mission drivers – essentially answering the question of what emerging trends have the potential to influence Coast Guard operations. All of this research is synthesized in an exhaustive process that ultimately yields five plausible future scenarios.
With this set of future scenarios, the Evergreen Core Team facilitates a series of workshops with a wide range of Coast Guard stakeholders to include senior and junior USCG leaders, senior enlisted, Department of Homeland Security agencies, federal/state/local government agencies, and commercial stakeholders. This wide-ranging audience is included in the Evergreen process, because they will all be a part of future solutions. Each brings a unique insight to the different scenarios.
One-week strategy workshops, allow participants to each “live” in one of the five future worlds to understand what opportunities and challenges the Coast Guard may face in that scenario. Participants spend a few days fleshing out the details of their world in 2035 and are ultimately asked to conduct a SWOT analysis, answering the question of what Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats their world poses to the USCG. Based on the realities of their assigned scenario, participants are then asked to determine strategies the Coast Guard must pursue in order to be successful. The insights and strategies gleaned from each world are then tested across the other scenarios to identify those which are robust across the full range of plausible future operating environments, and those which are contingent upon certain trigger conditions. Strategies found to be relevant in all scenarios are considered robust and are adopted as the Coast Guard’s Core Strategies. This intense and rigorous exercise helps the Coast Guard succeed in an uncertain future. Rather than attempt to predict one specific future (a pursuit that usually fails), USCG chooses to invest their time and energy pursuing strategies that will benefit the organization in a wide range of futures.
“One of the most common misconceptions of the Evergreen Process is the 25-year time horizon,” said Lt. Cmdr. Erica Mohr, strategic analyst. “Many assume that a process that utilizes worlds set 25 years from now must yield strategies for the Coast Guard in 2035. In fact, the resultant strategies are intended to be implemented immediately. Scenarios are intentionally set 25 years into the future because this time horizon is long enough to jolt participants out of their current beliefs and biases about the Coast Guard. 2035 scenarios are merely a tool for us to develop current strategies. By looking to the future, the Coast Guard develops strategies for today.”
The last iteration, “Evergreen II Project Report,” was completed in 2009. The final list of 13 strategies and the final, full report from Evergreen II can be viewed via the Office of Strategic Analysis Web site: www.uscg.mil/strategy/documents.asp. These 13 Core Strategies inform other important strategic documents produced by the Service including the Coast Guard’s Strategy, Posture Statement, Strategic Planning Direction, Mission Performance Plans, and even individual office and unit strategic plans.
Building Plausible Future Scenarios
Fundamentally, the process of Evergreen III will be the same as the previous iteration, Cmdr. Joe DuFresne, Office of Strategic Analysis Deputy, said. A set of five planning scenarios will be developed that are based on Core Team research, internal and external interviews, and information obtained from future trend workshops.
“We find five scenarios to be a workable number to create a plausible future planning space,” said DuFresne. “There are not too few futures such that one or two become the ‘most likely’ or ‘middle ground,’ and not too many such that they become too cumbersome to manage in workshops and development.”
The Evergreen II scenarios were entitled, Asian Way; Be careful what you wish for; Congagement; Lockdown; and Profits and Principles. According to Dufresne, the nature of the scenarios for the Evergreen III iteration will be slightly different.
“The Evergreen II scenarios were developed conjointly for Project Horizon, a whole of government scenario planning effort, thus the scenarios were more ‘global heavy,’ said DuFresne. “Although they will still have a global scope, ‘Evergreen III’s scenarios will more specifically define aspects of the world that impact Coast Guard missions.”
In Evergreen II, four scenario “dimensions” were used to help shape the events that define each scenario: the degree of challenge to nation state power and influence; gap in global standard of living; U.S. economic competitiveness; and the perception of a serious threat to U.S. security and/or our quality of life. Each of these dimensions is defined as either increasing or decreasing in the future world. For example, U.S. economic competitiveness is increasing in some scenarios and decreasing in others.
“Dimensions” Define Scenarios
In Evergreen II, four scenario dimensions were used to help shape the events that define each scenario:
- the degree of challenge to nation state power and influence;
- gap in global standard of living;
- U.S. economic competitiveness; and
- the perception of a serious threat to U.S. security and/or our quality of life.
With four scenario dimensions, and two possible outcomes (increasing or decreasing), there are 16 possible dimension combinations, or 16 possible worlds from which to choose. The Coast Guard’s executive leadership will then choose the final five scenarios from this list of 16 as the Evergreen III planning space.
It is important to note that these scenarios are not intended to be predictive in nature (i.e., Coast Guard does not expect the actual future to look like any of these specific scenarios). They are, instead, intended to present a purposefully broad range of possible outcomes. The scenarios are used to vet potential strategies only. For example, if a strategy is viable across all five scenarios, there is a high likelihood the strategy will be relevant, regardless of what the actual future holds.
According to Mohr, a literature review of trends reveals vastly different expert opinions. “The rigorous process we employ allows us to take this range of options into account,” said Mohr. “By following this process, we develop Core Strategies that, if implemented, will not be a wasted effort.”
Currently, the team is working on restructuring how the scenarios are used. They will still use them to develop Coast Guard core strategies, but they will also explore using them to “stress test” high-level issues such as large disaster response exercises, major budget decisions, and research and development projects.
“The bottom line is that we are constantly refining and adjusting the process in the spirit of the Evergreen model of continuous renewal,” said DuFresne.
Infusing Strategic Intent
How has the Evergreen process made an impact on the Coast Guard? DuFresne said, “That’s the million dollar question!”
According to DuFresne, former-Commandant Adm. Thad Allen thought the most substantial impact was developing leaders who think with strategic intent. This was something he noted would not be immediately recognized but would be implicit to the success of the organization. “Those who have been involved with Evergreen in any capacity have overwhelmingly expressed the individual professional development value they found. Another common reaction is excitement and often surprise that the Coast Guard is involved in such a thorough and thought-provoking strategy development process,” recalls DuFresne.
“Our office continually struggles with communicating the value and the applicability of Evergreen Core Strategies to the entire Coast Guard,” said Mohr. “Those who have participated in the process and understand the rigorous analysis which yields these strategies buy into their value.”
In addition to a final product that helps the Service make decisions with strategic intent, the workshops themselves are extremely gratifying, Mohr said. “A secondary outcome of the Evergreen cycle is large groups of Coast Guard members are put in a room with a very diverse set of co-participants and forced to make very strategic decisions. Coast Guard members are, by our very nature, responders. Evergreen workshops serve to improve strategic thinking skills of our top leaders and are arguably more effective that any theoretical, academic class one can take on the subject.”
Making Evergreen “the Coast Guard way of doing business” is the final phase of the process, and arguably the most important. According to the “Evergreen II” final report, the process is designed to imbue Coast Guard leaders of tomorrow with:
- an ability to think of problems in terms of integrated systems, rather than in isolation or in a linear fashion;
- an ability to think not just by reference to the past, but with anticipation of what the future could bring;
- an ability to think outside the Coast Guard, in terms of partnerships; and
- an ability to think not just about current operational or unit performance, but about what it takes over time to sustain organizational excellence.
But the common and valid criticism of the project is that Evergreen is not yet hard-wired into how the Coast Guard makes decisions operationally or fiscally. Until this is done it is considered simply an academic exercise.
Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.), is a senior writer with MCR LLC in Arlington, Virginia.
This article first appeared in the Coast Guard Outlook 2011 Edition.