What this pandemic can teach us about preparing for an uncertain future.

We are entering the world’s most turbulent period in more than a generation. The last major global shock was the financial crash in 2008. But while it caused massive economic upheaval it broadly followed a logic that we could comprehend from previous recessions – bailouts, stimulus packages, austerity. But the crisis caused by Covid-19 is different. It reaches into all parts of life with spectacular speed and requires unprecedented measures. It is not a choice between demand-side or supply-side tactics because neither are effective. It’s about managing the economy in deep-freeze and in time a gradual thawing and reactivation. How business and our lives will eventually look is highly uncertain. But the consensus is, they will be transformed.

So as we start to assess the impact, familiar questions are being asked. How could we have predicted this? What do we do right now? What futures do we believe in and plan for? Indeed, the defining feature of all this is that it’s unchartered territory with a lack of epidemiological, financial, and political history data to help predict what happens next. Rightly, the current focus is on business continuity and resilience, but in time thoughts will move to further in the future.

The pandemic is sure to have far-reaching impacts. It has exposed fragilities in just-in-time global supply chains that may result in a shift to on-shoring to provide greater resilience in the system. Enforced remote working is leading to new work practices that may result in productivity gains and longer-term adoption. It could transform how we deliver essential public services from education, using more blended distance learning, to healthcare, building in new technologies, agility and community participation.

But should it take a global pandemic to imagine this? Perhaps we could explore similar scenarios through the creative application of trends we are more familiar with:

  • What if trade networks shifted away from hyper-globalisation and towards localisation?
  • What if digital technology adoption was enforced and big high-rise offices became obsolete?
  • What if demand for public and private transport reduced as a result of faster internet connectivity and less commuting?
  • What if consumer concerns over food safety/hygiene increased demand for plastic wrapping at the expense of environmental drivers?
  • What if social distancing became part of ongoing life and automation became essential?

A good starting point for this is an understanding of enduring consumer or business needs.  Typically, these are the things that remain consistent across periods of time while the relative importance and how they are fulfilled changes in response to external factors. Consider, for instance, the need to purchase food. This core need hasn’t changed over the past few months but how it is fulfilled – with a shift from in store to online – and indeed the relative demand and pressure on certain food types – from long-life products to baking goods – has altered. At CDP our approach to any innovative investigation is start with understanding these enduring customer needs and then explore how they might evolve or be solved to imagine alternative futures.

Even with an appreciation of enduring needs, long-term, ‘what-if’ thinking has its challenges. It can seriously stretch comfort zones and often appear too abstract to gain enough traction during or after the process. To address these issues and get the most from scenario planning, try adopting these three principles.

1. Assign clear ownership. The common push back is that future scenarios are too hypothetical and too far ahead to be of any practical value. As a result they all too easily fall off the agenda. To avoid this, appoint someone with specific responsibility to help leadership teams take the long view. Even for leaders who value longer-term thinking they need to be given the space and time to think about it, with someone assigned responsibility to coordinate and implement planning.

2. Be led by the data. Some scenarios appear less plausible than others or may look more uncomfortable for your current business. However, it’s important not to let subjective judgement affect how seriously you take them. Remain objective and focus on scenarios which look most impactful or likely according to the data, not ones which suit you or cause the least disruption. Generating a sliding scale of probability and impact will help to prioritise in order to minimise exposure and/or choose the biggest opportunities.

3. Move from insights to actions. Scenarios provide a clue as to what may happen in the future. They are not usually a sound basis for a business case – although entrepreneurs may use it to make strategic bets. More often, it’s about informing directed steps that you can take to better plan, prepare and exploit opportunities, from assessing current capabilities to generating specific insights to support decision making. It’s important to ground scenario outputs in practical next steps which build on the insights and buy-in you have generated.

At CDP we apply customer/business insights, mega trends and technology insights, informed by our in-house experts to create possible futures, brought to life through creative exercises. We then make this actionable through clear prioritisation and breaking down outputs into ‘three horizons’ steps, starting with focused learning activities or experiments.

The future feels more uncertain than at any point in most of our lives. But our creative energies can be harnessed to see through the fog and plan for what we can anticipate, putting the right structures, knowledge and capabilities in place so when the scene becomes clearer, you are ready to adapt and flourish.

If you’re thinking about what the future holds for your business or sector, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch at hello@cambridge-design.com, we look forward to discussing your specific requirements.

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Martha Hodgson

Market and Design Insights Consultant