This is the third of what will likely turn into a series of articles about thinking about our personal and collective futures. As I write this in April 2020, the world is still in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic. There aren’t yet any clear pathways forward or answers on how this will end. It doesn’t mean that we can’t forge some for ourselves.
It’s March, 2022. You have a big challenge ahead of you. Facilitating the first strategic planning retreat in your organization that will be held face-to-face in nearly two years
What a long, strange and convoluted trip it has been to get here. You didn’t anticipate it would take this long, be this hard or require this much effort and persistence. Since the pandemic first started in early 2020, so much about of the work of your organization has just been about survival. There has been one challenge after the next. Some regulatory. Some legal. Some practical. Some political. That one where IT locked the executives out of Zoom in a vain attempt to try to make the meetings stop.
It isn’t the same organization that it was just two years ago. People have left. New ones have joined. Five of the executive team never came back after the second quarantine; they all announced their retirement within a month of each other. The services that were most popular and profitable before the outbreak are now barely asked for. The entire business model of the organization has shifted, the result of accident, experimentation and a little sheer luck.
Now, for the first time in what feels like an eternity, the executive team are gearing up to have a conversation about where they want the organization to go in the future. There is now an opportunity to acknowledge (and maybe reframe) the organization’s purpose and direction. To test and shift the values and principles by which the organization operates. To consider deliberate goals for a change, and the steps required to attain them.
It feels exciting to finally be getting ready for this conversation. It also feels daunting and intimidating. In your more honest moments, there are aspects of this challenge that are downright terrifying. There are huge expectations of the coming conversations, and you are the one that has been tasked with leading and facilitating them all. Where to even begin?
Projecting into the future is hard at any time. That is particularly true right now. The world has taken a hard right turn, and no one is quite sure where this road leads. What we do know is that there are twists and turns ahead, and it’s going to be an incredibly bumpy ride.
The vignette I started with imagines a point where your organization finally feels ready to face the future again, and to do so deliberately. That might sound like an awfully appealing notion, given the current level of uncertainty and chaos that we are living through during what is still only the first round of Covid-19 quarantining. It’s hard to even begin to imagine what the future might look like from here.
Most organizations right now are struggling simply to react to day-to-day circumstances. They are struggling with organizing and leading remote staff, wrangling supply chains and staying connected with customers. Customer needs and expectations are shifting rapidly. Business models are being ripped apart and scotch-taped back together as organizations desperately figure out how to eke out at least some revenue from the current situation.
Remarkably, though, there are—admittedly fewer—organizations that are functioning well, given the circumstances. Where this is true, it’s the result of a confluence of factors: the organizations were already comfortable with remote work, they had robust practices in place and had taken the time to build and test continuity plans. They show a level of strategic resiliency that the rest of the world regards with wonder.
Unquestionably, a different level of business continuity planning is going to be a major feature of many, many strategic plans going forward. The current pandemic has tested organizations in ways not imagined or thought possible. Even where the plans worked as designed, many didn’t go far enough, long enough or broadly enough to actually respond to our current reality.
The good news—if one can call it that—is that the current pandemic has helped to radically recalibrate what is considered possible or likely. For years, a pandemic of this scale has topped the risk assessment of the NHS in the UK, for example. That should have been reassuring. It is not. A simulation conducted in 2016 that broadly paralleled the actual outbreak of Covid-19 revealed the NHS would be overwhelmed, and specifically cited a lack of beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. The problems were known, the problems were named, and still nothing was done about them.
Failure to act is not a new phenomenon. Clearly, there were significant financial implications if preparedness was to be taken seriously. There are also significant mortality implications now, which in retrospect question the ethics and morality of not doing more. Without in any way trying to downplay any of those truths, there are also other factors that are important to take into consideration in dealing with the unknown.
That we like certainty is unquestionably true. Most people fundamentally dislike uncertainty. There are psychological biases at work that drive that, and that influence and shape how we respond to probability. A great deal of this goes back to the groundbreaking research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and lives in the realm of behavioural decision making.
In particular, we struggle to relate to the extremes of probability. Our minds dismiss risks of extremely low probability (regardless of impact) and declare them impossible. We also take risks of higher probability and assume they are a virtual certainty. We genuinely try to take the shades of grey that colour our lives, and make them all black or white.
Even though the consequences of a pandemic were presumed to be—and actually are—massive, the remote probability of one happening led to it being discounted. The more it stayed on the risk register without actually happening, the more inured to it people became. A scenario that was remarkably prescient and particular in its consequences was downplayed and dismissed.
While the UK government is the example that I highlight here, it is by no means unique. Canada has its own examples of failure to heed pandemic warnings. So does the United States. So, too, do many other countries, health agencies and organizations around the world. The inevitable inquiries will investigate and apportion blame. The larger question is what to do differently going forward.
Figuring out “where to from here?” is no less challenging for organizations than it is for individuals. We wrestle with the uncertainty of where we should go—or where is even possible. That is further complicated by the challenge of determining our current reality. The chaos we find ourselves in today makes for a rapidly shifting environment that we are challenged to make sense of. Despite the difficulty, however, meaningful insights are possible.
One of the more useful sensemaking models that I frequently reference is the Cynefin framework, developed by David Snowden. It looks like a two-by-two matrix with squiggly lines (there are actually five domains; the domain of disorder is hidden at the centre). Its value as a model is the ability to assess the dominant features of a given problem: whether it is simple, complicated, complex or chaotic. Simple and complicated situations are still understandable in terms of cause and effect. In complex and chaotic circumstances, causality cannot be directly traced; there are no levers that produce predictable, specific effects.
Today, we are in chaos. Our normal reality lives somewhere between complicated and complex. And even complexity would feel reassuring to many of us in this moment. There are strategies still available in each, though. Complex situations are normally dealt with through framework of “probe-sense-respond.” Meaning that we need to—quite literally—poke things and observe carefully for reactions in order to figure out how things work and the actions that may be most desirable. In chaos, the desired response is simply to act, with the hope that action helps to wrench circumstances back to the merely complex.
One of the fundamental considerations for organizations today is that chaos can be incredibly productive in terms of innovation. The simple need to react and respond means that creative solutions are absolutely necessary. The responses that define most organizational action right now are reactive. It can also—managed appropriately—be strategic. Success today is a product of rapid and regular experimentation; trying things, and hoping they work. Rather than being seen as a problem, that should actually be cultivated.
The vignette at the start of this article was deliberately framed to appeal to a very specific notion: “Now that we are through this, we can begin to think strategically again.” In point of fact, the only way through this is to be strategic. The world has collectively fallen over a cliff named Covid-19. Circumstances are dire. Governments are challenged, individuals are overwhelmed and organizations are struggling for their survival. It can be tempting to crawl under a blanket and hide. The opportunity for strategy, though, comes in acting.
The very fact that norms and traditional perspectives and practices have been upended is what makes this current situation an opportune time for strategic action. Risks have been massively recalibrated. Actions that would have been unthinkable just a few short weeks ago are now accepted. I can think of several organizations that struggled with the idea of “work from home” policies even in the last couple of years; today, their entire workforce is at home. Previously iron-clad and rigorously enforced policies flutter in irrelevance as they hang from bulletin boards that nobody can see.
It will likely be a while before effort is applied in developing traditional strategic plans again. What organizations need to do now, though, is focus attention on what is strategically important. This requires creativity and deftness. Existing strategic plans aren’t useless, but they will need to be shifted to what is possible now. Some strategies will still be relevant, and can still be pursued, or at the very least adapted; others will fade into the background, at least for a while.
At the same time, new strategic priorities are emerging that need to be identified, coordinated and implemented. The leadership challenge is in making sense of these, and being clear about the action required to deliver on them. The way we take action also needs to adapt, though. This is not the realm of traditional project management, with carefully codified and deliberately defined plans. Balancing chaos and complexity requires experimentation, adaptation and flexibility.
Teams and leaders both need to be comfortable with the fact that good ideas and activities that sounded reasonable last week are no longer relevant or applicable this week. Progress will not be linear. Things will be tried and found workable, while other things will be attempted and deemed wanting. Rework is inevitable and needs to be accepted. Success is what nudges us in a positive direction.
These will be uncomfortable circumstances for many. The control freaks will miss their detailed plans. Those with an appetite for detail will be challenged to accept approximation and general guidance. Staff that like clear expectations and well defined outcomes will struggle with what feels like vague and evolving direction. Change will be routine, and the most valued capability of any team member will be enthusiastic flexibility.
The organizations that embrace the strategic opportunities that exist within the current environment are those that will have the greatest likelihood of not just surviving but thriving. It’s a difficult picture to envisage. And it’s a working environment that sounds uncomfortable to many. For now, though, this is our new normal. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”