‘Past is the key to the future’, is what is often said by the learned. But when the present least resembles the known past, what sense does it make to look back in time for guidance about the future. It is this inability of us to compare the present Pandemic-driven crisis with anything that we have previously experienced is what is creating tremendous amount of uncertainty for businesses.
When we do not have any analogies to the past, we encounter great difficulty in envisioning how the present crisis will play out in the future, for in the absence of past data of similar nature, we cannot estimate the probability of particular outcomes. Which means, in times of great uncertainty we cannot even be able to imagine the range of potential outcomes and at best we can only guess what might happen. And in businesses guess has no place.
Even prior to the onset of Covid-19 crisis that has turned individuals’ lives and businesses topsy-turvy, the rapid technological changes and mounting political instability across countries, challenging some of our known assumptions about globalization, had made the future look pretty uncertain and disturbing. Indeed, the uncertainty was so all-pervasive that business leaders primarily focused on surviving immediate threats. Then came the Covid-19 and the lockdown-driven global economic downturn.
During this radically new and different circumstances, mental health of employees has become the prime concern of organizations and their leaders: employees cannot perform alright if they think they might be eased out or are pushing themselves too hard. This is calling for a new style of thinking about work-plans and addressing the fears of employees about those transitions.
But as the economy is slowly unfolding itself from its cocoon and entering periods of recovery, there appears to be no clear-cut template for businesses to follow for regaining their lost ground. For, there is a profound uncertainty about how the future will unfold. It is the giant corporates such as Amazon and other online suppliers, who by virtue of their huge capacity to recruit people more rapidly and with huge logistics infra at their command, could encash the crisis by reaching out to every corner of the globe delivering supplies to the customers. We are also witnessing a clear spike in online shopping, and analysts wonder if this emerging trend might further the dominance of the big corporations.
Even governments have become less concerned about balancing their budgets. Over it, entire industry is today looking at the governments to bail them out from the probable bankruptcy.
Even politicians have suddenly become interventionists by resorting to huge spending to give a boost to the economy. It is for certain that we are not going back to what we all know as normal. It is against this backdrop that businesses are today required to draw their strategies to aim at post-crisis growth.
“Drawing strategy in times of great uncertainty—lack of antecedents—is difficult”, says Peter Scoblic, co-founder of Event Horizon Strategies. For, identification of effective courses of action for the long haul amidst a chaotic situation, like the present COVID-driven crisis, is no easy affair. In such a situation, all that businesses can do is: Practice strategic foresight. Under it, what the leaders are required to do is not to expend their energies in predicting the future but help organizations engage in scenario planning. They must indeed visualize multiple futures and simultaneously identify matching strategies for implementation across them. Such an exercise teaches organizations how to anticipate possible futures while still operating in the present.
No doubt, in the beginning, the prospect of a scenario building can be intimidating, but once started, by inviting right people of the organization—people endowed with the power to perceive, the power to think and the power to act—to participate in scenario building, the going becomes easy. Leaders must encourage the group to “identify assumptions, drivers and uncertainties” and imagining “plausible but dramatically different futures” draw strategies that will be useful across multiple probable futures for implementation.
Importantly, such scenario planning should not be considered as a one-off exercise. Leaders should indeed institutionalize such scenario planning and ensure that there is always a dynamic link between planning about future and taking actions in the present. It is only such dynamic scenario planning which can ensure that organizations are not caught off guard by any change that however suddenly might emerge. Instead, such envisioning of multiple futures shall enable businesses to quickly adapt to change and move forward with “bounded optimism” safely.
Ultimately, it is the culture of the organizations, how leaders show up during the unprecedented crisis and how its employees respond to this ‘new-norm’ is what is going to define the success or failure of an organization.