COVID-19: Building futures in the midst of a crisis

What does strategic foresight have to offer organizations and individuals busy putting out the fires triggered by COVID-19? A chance to shed bad habits, weigh the immediate outcomes and envision possibilities on the other side of this.

It’s not a panacea—nothing is—but foresight can help alleviate some of the uncertainty. That’s always been its role.

What can you do?

Assess how to survive

Whether you operate in a disrupted industry—think airlines, hotels, restaurants, anything in the experience economy—or just generally feel the impact, you can develop a few quick and dirty scenarios to help direct your efforts and resources.

René Rohrbeck, professor of strategy and foresight, has walked through how he quickly developed strategies for four scenarios based on uncertainties of (1) how long the pandemic will last, and (2) how intense the efforts to mitigate it will be.

You can also use tools and templates designed for near-term foresight in crisis situations, like Denmark’s Pandora Cell for crisis anticipation, which is structured to grow the horizon being scanned in proportion to the length of the crisis.

The more recent the crisis, the more near-term the concerns will be, as systems will not yet have adjusted. However, as they do adjust and stability returns, longer-term considerations can progressively be brought to the table.

Reflect on what went wrong

It’s important to not get trapped reacting to changing circumstances, but proactively anticipate them. Paradoxically, this means looking backwards to identify what went wrong if the events took you entirely by surprise:

  • Your ability to make sense of changes in the environment, or what futurist Jayar La Fontaine calls “epistemic hygiene”—the ways in which we scan the environment for information, assess source perspectives and weigh the accumulation of new evidence against our priors.
  • Your cumulative effort at imagining alternative scenarios: Good foresight is like a muscle built up over time and not overnight, with a sustained collecting of information, testing of hypotheses and pluralization of perspectives, as experiential futurist and professor Stuart Candy has noted.
  • Your mental models and frameworks for scaffolding evidence: Surface the latent models and assumptions of how the world operates used by you and your organization, and test them against notions like complexity, tail risks and exponentials, as described by futurist John A. Sweeney.

Envision what could be transformed

Under normal conditions, past data can be an excellent guide to future conditions. But when systems enter conditions that futurist Karl Schroeder calls “phase shifts,” then overreliance on the past becomes a hindrance to anticipating what comes next. Time to jettison some of those 2030 trends roadmaps, counsels futurist Wendy Schultz.

Instead, use the openness and uncertainty of the present to envision possibilities that might have seemed outlandish only months, weeks or even days ago.

Leverage and amplify the potential for positive transformations while keeping a close watch on emerging or newly empowered actors. It was, after all, Mao who once said “everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”

In times of crisis, it can be the most unexpected forces that win in the end.