Scenarios & Strategy through the Covid Looking Glass

radical Briefing #0028

radical.briefing

One niche-market that may find significant upside in the pandemic economy: scenario planning.

We recently heard from a colleague whose work as a scenario practitioner goes back to the heyday of Global Business Network, the pioneering consultancy founded in Berkeley in the late 1980s, that he was finding more interest in scenario-based strategy work than he’d seen in a couple of decades. It’s not hard to guess why: The scarring experience of being caught epically wrong-footed by an unforeseen but certainly not unimaginable paradigm-shifting event has left in its wake a population of organizational leaders who are eager to build more adaptable, responsive strategy through a practice of future envisioning.

We’ve argued the merits of exploring (and embracing) possible futures as spaces for new narratives and bold imagination here before — particularly with reference to the idea of an inherently limiting “official future.” This was something Christian Crewes came up with to suggest that every organization is always designing and executing today — implicitly or explicitly — against a vision of what the world will be like tomorrow. The problem arises when this vision, this official future, itself is an artifact of the past and unresponsive to a rapidly evolving present. Hence, Crewes’s call for leaders to “kill” the official future and make room for possible futures and new mental models as a means of building adaptability.

The Future

Six months through the Covid looking glass, and we’re able to clearly make out the increasing returns on adaptability, resilience, and imagination. As a group of partners from Oliver Wyman wrote last month in the MIT Sloan Management Review: “The resilient corporations that find success in the future will be those that can continue to turn on a dime as nimbly as they have during the early months of the pandemic.” As a thesis about organizational future fitness, this isn’t new, but it’s perhaps newly undeniable.

The pandemic has ratcheted up a set of selective pressures that have been building in the global economy for decades. As the management theorists of the late 20th century watched the industrial age give way to the knowledge era, they understood that advanced economies were moving from a paradigm that rewarded the optimization of production and the flow of physical assets (often by achieving vast economies of scale or scope) to a new era in which the key to sustaining superior performance would be faster learning — and thus increased innovation and adaptability. As leadership researcher Mary Uhl-Bien put it in 2007: “Rather than leading for efficiency and control, appropriate to manufacturing, organizations find themselves leading for adaptability, knowledge, and learning.”

In the 21st century, firms seeking a competitive advantage in a wide range of sectors have found themselves compelled to play the game according to the rules established for the information economy. Adaptability and agile learning beat most everything else as organizational strengths, and as the global pandemic has tilted the playing field even further in favor of those competencies, it makes sense that the most resilient organizations would be those pursuing strategies to create feedback loops through which knowledge is quickly and cheaply accumulated, shared, and further built upon.

Indeed, each of the strategies that the authors of the MIT Sloan article above highlight is what you could call an ecosystemic strategy — one designed to foster resilience and agility by growing connective tissue and rapidly accumulate and share new knowledge. And each, in turn, should help the organization more readily make sense of emerging risks and opportunities.

The MIT piece is worth reading in its entirety, but the strategic formula it details boils down to:

  1. Prioritize and empower people with an eye to tapping their collective intelligence.
  2. Seek relative certainty in the context of megatrends.
  3. Increase resilience through strategic networks and novel partnerships — even collaborating with competitors where it can reduce risks or offer benefits.
  4. Move beyond the shareholder model to embrace a multi-stakeholder view of value creation and sharing.

Taken together, these strategies can support a practice of imagining, exploring, and evaluating possible futures while never allowing an official future to go uncontested.

This brings us back to Crewes and a ground truth for organizations and leaders looking to build adaptability by embracing possible futures: To create space for new possibilities and narratives to flourish, we have to be willing to let old ones — even some fundamental or perhaps cherished ones — go. Dreaming up new possibilities may prove the easier part. The harder work of change comes when we acknowledge that we necessarily have to kill off the official future to break the incredibly powerful hold that the past exercises on the futural imagination.

This is essential not only to what scenario planners describe as being prepared to act strategically whatever the future manifests but also to what folks of a philosophical bent call becoming. Whatever you call it, it just might be a key to resilience in the post-Covid era.

radically yours,

Jeffrey and the be radical team


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