As I mentioned in my recent article, one of the difficulties of strategic foresight is that it deals with unknown (and yet imaginable) futures.
When a sudden disruption of the status quo arises, it is a natural temptation to make excuses as for the ‘unknowable’ nature of the unfolding event and therefore accept that the responses to it cannot be perfect, thereby suggesting that no one could deal any better with the situation.
But is this really the case? I don’t agree.
A pandemic scenario was not only identified in many professional circles including global think tanks and strategic foresight communities, but also brought to the attention of decision makers through by various means (e.g. through the yearly global risk report of the World Economic Forum).
The problem is therefore not so much a lack of imagination than of priority and rigor in thinking through and preparing for uncertain high impact events.
But investing in thinking about such events plays against the standard business paradigm of just-in-time efficiency, high performance and profit maximization (the exploitation cycle). It requires precious and scarce time and bandwidth of organizations’ top management for an activity (risk mitigation, contingency planning etc.) that has no direct RoI in the sense of the same standard business paradigm (since the uncertain high impact events don’t occur every day).
Few will admit this, especially now that the crisis has hit, and most will claim that they of course spend a considerable amount of their time managing uncertainties. But you just need to speak to the risk managers, strategic controllers, IT security guys etc. to get a more differentiated picture of the situation, more often than not there is not enough interest or budgets to invest in buffers, resilience measures and redundancies.
But at the same time, this is one of the biggest arguments why top executives are being paid top dollars, to think the unthinkable (all the time, over and over again), and prepare their organizations to cope swiftly when disruptions occur. Explaining that nobody could have seen it coming is certainly not good enough. Regular citizens and employees depend on the leadership capacity to navigate through turbulent times and dealing with highly volatile business environments is clearly one of the biggest leadership challenges of our time.
It is easy to think that now that the disruptive scenario is here it is too late anyway and that all we can do now is troubleshoot and get back on track as fast as we can, making up difficult decisions as the crisis unfolds and react as good as we can to what’s still to come. But then again, crises are also times of new opportunities waiting to be jumped upon.
And of course there are other disruptions just around the corner. Which of them have been thought through and prepared for and what would be the reactions to them if they occurred tomorrow? How about our resilience to a major cyber-attack? Would we be in a position to go offline and ensure continuity of operations? Or how about a sudden supply disruption of a critical component? Or the multiplication of climate-related natural disasters affecting several production sites? Or an acceleration of migration pressures? Or or or?
If you ask yourself how to go about this challenge, here are 5 very concrete things you can do as of tomorrow morning to deal with uncertain futures (all this can also be done virtually if needed due to ongoing confinement measures):
- Read through the last 2-3 versions of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report and challenge your Excom colleagues on how well they think your organization is prepared to deal with any individual or any combinations of the top 10 risks, then have your teams create contingency plans for the most dangerous situations.
- Call my colleague Thomas Gauthier and ask if there is still a spot open for your organization to take part in the next #disrupted futures course at em lyon business school; you will be surprised by the power of imagination of the students and how they will help you create and think through a set of disruptive scenarios.
- Run a scenario planning exercise with your Senior Leadership Team (yes, at Excom level !!!) at least every quarter and collectively think through the implications of and possible reactions to the identified disruptive scenarios; don’t forget to track these scenarios once they have been created and make sure to keep them on the table even if they are uncomfortable.
- Instead of giving in to the temptation of putting them on partial unemployment status (this is really happening right now, no joke), ask your strategic foresight team to come up with a set of disruptive business scenarios and use them to challenge your Excom with those scenarios in your next (online) working session.
- Appoint a ‘Chief Disruption Officer’ or ‘Chief Resilience Officer’ or ‘Chief Worry Officer’ (or however you want to hall her who’s only job is to investigate for potential business disruptions and anticipate your organization’s contingency measures in case these scenarios occur; it needs to be a well-connected, T-shaped and largely recognized business manager.
It is human nature to only make sense of things we have already ‘seen’ in some way (the bias of pre-conception is widely recognized by neuroscience), but it is the duty and primary responsibility of leadership to fight this nature and become more comfortable with disruptive futures, embrace them, prepare for them and navigate them (better than your competitors) when they arise.