It’s obvious that the post-COVID world will look different. But how will it be different and what, specifically, will have changed? The short answer is that no-one knows exactly what the future will look like, but we still need to plan for this unknowable future. The question is, how? To consider these futures we need a mechanism that will allow us to plan for immediate, short term futures but preserve medium and long term planning capabilities. However, taking months or even weeks to generate a strategic foresight plan is unworkable under the current circumstances. Particularly since few if any organisations currently have the resources to devote to both coping with the immediate future as well as in-depth strategic planning.
What we don’t need is a cumbersome, brain numbing, resource sucking method of coping. We must have a method that is agnostic to exactly when things will be “over”, and which allows us to flexibly and agilely address whatever unknown road leads us to the actual future.
To address these needs I’ve developed a simple, 5 Step COVID Pandemic Planning method;
1. C: Choose appropriate planning tools.
2. O: Open our minds and challenge our thinking about how to use the tools.
3. V: Visualise a method to be prepared for many possible futures.
4. I: Identify and understand the signals of change.
5. D: Decisive action to execute the plan.
C: Choose appropriate planning tools.
Two well established and commonly used strategic foresight tools are the three horizons method and scenario planning. A combination of these strategic foresight tools is ideal for creating a method to generate the flexible and agile outcomes required to cope with the current turmoil.
What are these methods?
a) 3 Horizons
The three horizons method involves planning in three time periods, generally short, medium and long term. (figure 1.) Resources are then allocated across the three horizons to meet strategic and tactical goals.
The drawback of this method under current conditions is that a stable base is required for planning. However, at present even the immediate 0 – 3 month future is too volatile and fluid to rely upon. We therefore can’t produce the traditional “short term” future of say 0 to 3 years given our inability to read even the possible immediate future of 0 to 3 months.
b) Scenario Planning
The second method, scenario planning, involves identifying two key attributes or signals which are both highly uncertain yet highly important in determining possible futures. These attributes are plotted on horizontal and vertical axes and generate four possible futures, or scenarios. These futures are often given descriptive names and even a more fully developed story. For instance, one set of futures important to the flour supply chain could be generated using flour sales vs workers returning to the office. (figure 2.)
It should be noted that these scenarios are not predictions but simply possible, plausible futures without any attached probability of any of them becoming reality.
Where scenario planning excels is this ability to consider multiple possible futures. We then track the key scenario inputs over time to assess which of the possible futures projected, if any, are becoming reality.
However, this method also has a drawback which is that, under current conditions, finding only two drivers is like looking for a needle in a haystack. In fact, we have a haystack full of needles, but no idea which one is the needle.
O: Open our minds and challenge our thinking about how to use the tools.
We’ve established that our methods have limitations, so we need to challenge our thinking about their basis and how they’re used.
a) Three Horizons
This tool needs a new approach to categorising future horizons in the face of exponentially developing, widespread crises like the current pandemic. We therefore need to apply four planning horizons, immediate, short, medium and long term. I term the “immediate” horizon the “horizon of chaos”. (figure 3.)
b) Scenario Planning
As noted the number of scenarios generated is usually four but under the current conditions four scenarios from two signals cannot feasibly cover the number of possible post-pandemic futures! However, there’s nothing to stop us from generating as many futures as we like from multiple pairs of signals; i.e. generating the multiple needles. We then test each “needle” to see which one is the most valuable in modelling the developing present.
V: Visualise a method to be prepared for many possible futures.
The combination of four horizons and multiple, simple scenarios is my Scenario Horizons™ method. (figure 4) This method enables companies to deal with both the immediate highly volatile possible futures and balance this with short, medium, and long term strategies. Balancing these horizons out ensures that immediate day to day decisions “made on the fly” don’t compromise the ability to make good future decisions.
I: Identify and understand the signals of change.
The most important Scenario Horizons™ implementation issue is determining which signals are the most important to the future of an organisation. Under the current circumstances few companies have both the luxury of “business as usual” and the abilities and resources to conduct traditional, long term strategic foresight. Given these pressures on an organisation’s resources, a “quick and dirty” approach to identifying important signals will achieve a timelier and more useful outcome. When days and weeks matter it’s critical to minimise the time and staff resources required to generate possible futures.
In our flour example we could add the signal pair of retail cake purchases versus food service cake purchases. Or number of cafes opening vs retail flour sales. Any of these could signal significant changes in the market for flour.
Critically, by considering coordinated multiple, simple scenarios from multiple signal pairs, the agility and flexibility of the organisation will be dramatically improved in the horizon of chaos. Most of these simple scenarios act as a temporary framework rather than a permanent part of the strategic plan. Only those which closely match reality and/or continue to be useful are kept.
D: Decisive action to execute the plan.
Following the signals in the various scenarios can be spread over multiple departments within organisations, removing the need for specialized resources to gather data. The strategic analysis is then conducted by a dedicated group to provide consistency of interpretation and integration of the strategies into the overall organisational plans. This process reduces the possibility of “futures overload” where the organisation collapses under the weight of resources required to follow all of the scenarios. As time progresses this process can then be applied to the short term horizon to produce further multiple possible futures. Medium and long term futures can be considered under a more traditional scenario planning approach
The COVID based Scenario Horizons™ method is, above all, a practical approach to strategic planning in these chaotic, pandemic times. It’s flexible and agile and doesn’t require the heavy resource commitment necessary for traditional strategic foresight planning. It’s an appropriate method for considering the post-pandemic future and offers the ability to cope with short term chaos while preserving longer term strategic planning.
(To develop your COVID futures plan contact me here or see my Food Futurist site here)