What next

Photo by D Ross

Now that you’ve stabilized your organization, what next?

Yes, it’s hard to know. There are countless losses stemming from the pandemic; certainty is one of them.  All the knowns and unknowns of this new Covid-19 era compel us to reach beyond the usual limitations of our thinking.

There’s plenty of open source content on scenario planning, and I’ll get to that in a moment. The rigor with which you approach scenario planning is critical. So let’s start there.

Great leaders think about how they think

If positioning your organization was a mere technical challenge, you’d be doing it already because the needed plans, behaviors and tasks would be familiar.

But a pandemic? It’s a different beast altogether. Here you’re facing an adaptive challenge. How things have been done before won’t work. We’re all in a context wildly different from that of just 90 days ago.

An effective response to the pandemic calls for a whole new level of thinking. We could ignore many things before; now there’s risk if we miss an important cue. The point isn’t to be hyper-vigilant. The point is to reflect on the very real possibility that how we think may not be well-matched to what these times demand.

Robert Kegan, a Harvard professor who has spent over 30 years studying the development of mental complexity, arrived at an interesting conclusion. Fewer than 10% of adults can look objectively at the frameworks they routinely use for thinking. In other words, relatively few of us know how to recognize — let alone challenge — our own thinking. One of the keys is to stop skirting around contradiction, and instead treat it as productive fodder to evolve our capacity for understanding complexity.

“People at this level of mental complexity can still focus, select and drive when they feel they have a good map. But they place a higher priority on information that may also alert them to the limits of their current design or frame.” — Robert Kegan, Immunity to Change

For people who naturally integrate multiple layers of complexity in their thinking, the contours of reality are malleable and can be altered as new information is processed. It’s all in service to a more accurate reflection of reality, and it entails a new way of perceiving. One that involves testing and challenging one’s own observations. Over and over again.

Assumptions are (almost) everything

When the term scenario planning is bantered about, people assume the challenge is to see into the future and imagine a universe of relevant possibilities and appropriate responses. That’s certainly part of it. But I believe it’s the easier part.

The mental short-cuts we take in day-to-day life become hindrances when our circumstances change. Serious thinking requires us to slow down. Ruminate. Test our sense of what’s going on, what could happen next and the possible, optimal, responses.

The time spent on Coronavirus-driven scenario planning will prove more productive if teams repeatedly test and challenge their cognitive biases. This is no small feat given how the human brain is hard-wired. Keep an eye out for these, which I will be exploring more deeply in a future post.

  • Status quo bias — presuming it’s safer to stay the course
  • Negativity bias — weighing potential loss more heavily that potential gain
  • Availability bias — working only with information at hand
  • Confirmation bias — over-valuing the evidence that supports one’s position
  • Framing — being confined by one’s pre-determined world view

Three challenges to the leader’s thinking process that the pandemic accentuates boil down to:

  1. Reality — what is real, what is overlooked, what is imagined?
  2. Assumptions — what concepts, beliefs and attitudes about the present or the future are weak or erroneous?
  3. Interpretations — where have opinions, exerted over and over again, been mistaken as facts?

Tap the knowledge of others

There’s no manual for the pandemic and no crystal ball to show how it will play out. There are too many variables and moving parts that will continue to collide with each other for months to come. However, terrific resources exist. You’ve probably already found several.

Focus on your sector. By now (six weeks into U.S. sheltering-in-place), most industry associations have released preliminary guidance on what to look for. Lean into their assessments about what to pay attention to. In addition, advisory firms and consulting agencies regularly post targeted guidance and insights and hold periodic webinars to cover emerging trends and direction.

Rough out new plans. I recommend doing a solo exercise before bringing the team together. Push your own thinking to the brink — then press further. When the team steps in don’t pronounce your conclusions. Instead, guide them through a process so they can take a fresh look, too. This is truly a time to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and ideation. Here are a few resources with useful prompts:

Five Steps To Consider As You Create Your COVID-19 Recovery Plan — excellent guidance by Trever Cartwright of Coraggio Group, including the reminder that now is a time for shorter planning bursts as circumstances are likely to keep evolving.

Leaders, Do You Have a Clear Vision for the Post-Crisis Future? — solid guidance on timing and reverse-engineering and the imperative to spend time thinking every week, by  Mark W. Johnson of Innosight.

Strategic Futures Scenario Techniques: Scenario Planning — while not specific to COVID-19, it’s an excellent primer on the focus and process of scenario planning, from UK-based SAMI Consulting

Neither A Black Swan Nor A Zombie Apocalypse: The Futures Of A World With The Covid-19 Coronavirus, by Sohail Inayatullah and Peter Black — a global view with very big-picture and rather long-term perspectives; it won’t guide your business decisions per se, but the authors expose possible futures for months and years to come.

Lastly, be generous

We’re all aware of the toll the pandemic is taking on front line workers, people without savings and those who live with mental illness and domestic violence. The pandemic also casts new light on socio-economic inequalities — a systems issue.

Are there resources you can extend to those in need? In March, for example, companies re-tooled to produce masks. In mid-April, a public-private partnership took shape so NY farmers could redirect their excess dairy products to food banks. Your organization may have something valuable to contribute — something that would never have occurred to you before. A product. A service. An idea. An extension of your people team.

Your people will appreciate — and learn from —  generosity you extend to them, too. Everyone’s circumstances and coping skills are different. Now more than ever is the time to balance the human side of running an organization along with the operational and strategic aspects.

In the longer term, what mark will you leave? What stake are you prepared to put in the ground? One client, an executive director, is seizing the moment to raise the question of pay disparity within her organization — knowing full well the discussion of values and principles is likely to lead to a reduction in her own pay.

There’s no master of the universe when it comes to a pandemic. Everyone’s vulnerable and the virus won’t be wiped out by a single person. Epidemics are great equalizers. Perhaps that included an equal invitation to make the world a little bit better. Today, tomorrow and across future phases of recovery.