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Organizational Change
How to Fix Foresight in This ‘New Normal’

COVID-19 has fragmented the future. Your best-laid plans may lie broken. But it is possible to bring order to a world of multiple, uncertain futures; and lay the groundwork for the reset we need.

We need a reset. We all need a reset.

Things were planned, budgeted, underway, understood. But now?

How is it possible to continue to do our jobs effectively in a COVID- and post-COVID world? We just can’t, not as we did before. Tear up old, linear 3- and 5-year plans; the world that they were built for doesn’t exist anymore.

Even when the current crisis is over — and it feels like it’s already dragged on for years — something new and different will have emerged. The terrain is so dynamic, there’s no business Richter scale that can cope with it.

Okay, then: Time to adjust to the new reality! But how?

We need to think differently

The nature of the future has changed, and our thinking needs to change with it. Broadly speaking, we used to plan like this:

  • See the future

  • Choose a direction

  • Take action

But now, we see that each of those phrases needs to be made plural. We need to:

  • See multiple futures

  • Choose alternative directions

  • Take new actions

In this article, we’ll focus on the first part, seeing multiple futures.

Seeing multiple futures

Before, we mostly treated “the future” as a single period, taking a few speed-bumps in stride. But now, things have diverged much more radically — splintering time into four very different time horizons:

  • Today

  • This quarter

  • This year

  • 2021+

We can now see how essential it is to treat each separately with a simple thought experiment: How do you rally a staff around the old three-year plan when what what’s consuming their thoughts is addressing the massive crisis happening right now… today?

Who can blame a coworker for asking, “The future is all well and good, but how do I stay productive and focused with the kids home from school?” Or, “how do I build and maintain essential relationships when there’s no in-person contact?”*

This clarity around distinct time frames is one of the core changes we need to make to our thinking.

The other is the change from a predicted future to a set of possible futures. We can’t be content to say, “Here’s what the world will look like at the end of the year; now, what should we do?”

Instead, we have to say: “Here are several possibilities for what the world could look like at the end of the year — now what could we do in each case?”

Four steps

We need to create specific pictures of what could happen and when, so we are prepared for whatever ends up happening. To do that, we need to:

  • Select a focus (time horizon and breadth)

  • Consider the most influential factors

  • Differentiate between what is known and what isn’t

  • Determine which combinations of factors fit together naturally and which are not likely to coexist

Step 1: Decide on your initial focus — time horizon and breadth

Are you thinking about where things stand today, or sometime next year? Is the focus on the big picture — the planet, the country — or are you zeroed-in on your own company? (Don’t worry, you’ll tackle additional horizons and scopes later.)

For the purpose of this article, let’s use this quarter as the time horizon and focus on the broadest global context.

Step 2: Identify key factors

List all key factors to be focused on. In the case of the focus we selected earlier — broad context, this quarter — those factors would include things such as how prevalent COVID-19 infections are, the direction of the economy, etc.

Here are some categories to get you started (feel free to add your own):

Now, if you combine the focus selected in Step 1 with key factors from Step 2, you will be left with the questions such as:

“What will be the state of public health by the end of this quarter?

“What will be happening to the global / national economy by then?”

And so on.

Step 3: Create scenarios

In order to develop possible future scenarios, create a table that lists the six key factors across the top. For each factor, gauge your level of confidence that what you expect is what will happen.

  • For example, if the end of this quarter is mid-summer, there is high confidence it will be hotter, so “hot” is written in the Environment column

  • If there is an element that is less certain, list several possibilities for that factor in separate rows. Under the ‘Government’ column, for example, you might be uncertain as to whether there will be a nationwide lockdown, local shelter-in-place orders, or neither. If so, put “nationwide lockdown” in one row, “local shelter-in-place” in another, and “no distancing” in a third.

After you have done this for each key factor, scan across each row to see if it adds up to a plausible, coherent scenario — one that makes sense to you.

For example, low levels of infection (Health) and no efforts to encourage distancing (Government) could make sense together, while high levels of infection and no distancing efforts are a combination we’re unlikely to see.**

If the row makes sense, give it a title that captures its essence. We might call a scenario with low levels of infection and no distancing efforts, “Moving toward normal.” (See illustration.)

Step 4: Repeat the process for all time horizons

Once you’ve identified scenarios for your initial focus, it’s time to repeat the process for other time horizon and breadth choices. Using end of this year as a time horizon for instance, overall health might be improving — hurray! — but still below pre-pandemic levels. Some regions might be close to peak for infections, with others farther down the curve.

When you’ve finished, a much clearer picture of the possible futures you may face — in each time frame — will have emerged. And you’ll have a lot more clarity and be a lot less worried that you’re missing something critical.

Thus armed, you can create and test various potential strategies against different scenarios and time frames. This will facilitate the creation of more robust strategies better suited to today’s reality — and tomorrow’s.***

COVID-19 has fragmented the future. Your best-laid plans may lie broken. But it is possible to bring order to a world of multiple, uncertain futures; and lay the groundwork for the reset we need.

Stay safe!

* If you’re interested in learning more about our series of tools, tune into one of our free webinars.*

** After you’ve finished your first pass, however, it is worthwhile challenging even the assumptions you’re pretty confident are right. For example, what would you do if the government encouraged socializing and getting back to work even as the pandemic was still rising?

*** Planning and adaptation have their own set of tools, such as the robust options and decisions scenario matrix (ROADS)