As our collective attention begins to turn towards the future and the post-pandemic period, many questions arise. Here I would like to address two: How do we navigate to a new landscape? And, how should we consider the next futures of organisations and work?
For this article, I am drawing on the new book, Aftershocks and Opportunities – Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future (Talwar, R., Wells, S., & Whittington, A. (Eds.). (2020). Aftershocks and Opportunities – Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future. London, Kent: Fast Future Publishing) for which I am a co-editor and contributing author.
Navigating a New Landscape
If we think about the world as we came into the COVID-19 pandemic, we were constantly talking about a more complex, multifaceted world. There were issues around how globalisation was working, tensions around economy and trade, ongoing regional tensions and conflict, and as a society we were coming to terms with increasingly pervasive technology.
The emergence of COVID-19 added a new dimension to those complexities; limiting economic activity, the rapid creation of funding mechanisms for businesses and furlough schemes for employees, challenging the notion of globalisation as nations sought supplies of critical products from local producers, and also the use of pervasive technology to monitor individuals’ health as part of track and trace strategies.
The pandemic and governmental responses to it have highlighted issues of sustainability—the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a wonderful template to help us think through the different dimensions of sustainability. The goals cover health, cities and communities, jobs and economic growth, all of which have been brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. One of the interesting factors to have emerged has been the positive impact on the environment through lockdowns and resulting travel restrictions. There are some interesting lessons both on the importance of sustainable economics and a sustainable society together with the positive impact that we can have on the environment if we choose to take action to limit harmful emissions.
As we move through the pandemic a critical question relates to not wasting the opportunity of a crisis: should we seek to restore the old order or work toward a total system reboot? On the one hand, many people talk about the folly of going back to the way we were; returning to the old normal. Equally, there are many complications and uncertainties about the impact of a total system reboot. So perhaps “radical and revolutionary” is beyond reach for now, and maybe rapid evolution will prove to be the name of the game.
The love of facts has become a critical issue; from understanding the underlying assumptions built into models supporting governments’ policy decisions designed to cope with the pandemic to information shared on social media platforms both knowingly and unwittingly false. Many people fell foul of dangerously inaccurate information in the early stages of the pandemic, sharing it across their networks under the misapprehension they were helping their friends and contacts. At the other extreme we have seen leaders make outrageous statements of their administration’s handling of the responses to the crisis. Going forward, there will be a strong desire to communicate consistent and accurate information if we want to successfully adjust people's behaviour in future lockdowns, for example.
Government crisis responses have come into sharp focus as the degree of preparedness has varied significantly from country to country. Whilst some countries have fallen back on previously developed plans for their responses, others have reacted quickly to the pandemic and put some amazing mechanisms in place that would under normal circumstances go against the political doctrine of the government in power. But it does cause us to question how prepared we should be for major disruptions in the future.
Preparedness leads into responding with resilience and what we have seen is governments taking different views about securing supplies of critical products (ventilators, medication, and personal protective equipment, for example) which could change procurement decisions and supply chains in the future as home production and warehousing is seen as more important than cost savings of “just in time” inventory management. Resilience to unexpected shocks will be critical, at both the governmental and the enterprise level.
The Next Futures of Organisations and Work
Organisations need to be more “future proof” and resilient to shocks and disruption. The most future proofed organisations work on three time horizons in parallel:
- The first is a need to ensure operational excellence, to win the race for the current year by meeting commitments made to stakeholders.
- The second time horizon is when we take a step back and we search for future growth. We look out one to three years perhaps—typically called strategic planning—and extrapolate the trends that we see into the future. This gives a sense of confidence that we know how the near term future is going to play out.
- But future proofed organisations also work on a third time horizon in parallel, looking four to 10 years into the future; trying to understand the future drivers and get a sense of the weak signals emerging that could help inform new views of the future. The objective here is not necessarily to take specific action now, but to build preparedness about policy, strategy, and future investments. Foresight provides valuable insight to the potential reshaping of our business and business model so we stay relevant in the eyes of customers and clients.
Adopting future-proofing processes is part of accepting a mindset challenge and part of changing organisational DNA. The choices here seem to be playing by the current rules; do what we’ve always done, so we get what we’ve always got; or creating and playing by new rules, innovating to create disruptive ideas in your chosen market place. The issue here is that by aiming to get what we’ve always got, we stand still. Or do we? In the meantime the market progresses, quick thinking existing competitors and new competitors come into the market and take share from us. Aiming for the status quo is tantamount to moving backwards. The challenge for future success relies on increasing innovation, creativity, adopting digital technologies, creating a new culture and imbed behavioural change that may acknowledge heritage but that doesn’t restrain the enterprise.
Mindset then throws up a challenge of achieving extraordinary leadership. In the past we have found consensus on the way ahead and have been able to regard the future with manageable levels of uncertainty. This is the realm of ordinary management. Increasingly we are unable to reach consensus about the way ahead, in part because the external environment is increasingly uncertain. This is the realm of extraordinary leadership.
Our next leaders will need to be capable of imagining and experimenting their way to the future. Extraordinary leaders will have a new configuration of existing stills at their disposal including foresight, systems thinking, competence in working with uncertainty and complexity, understanding the impact of exponential change on employees and those around them, developing and enhancing relationships, collaboration, communicating with clarity, exhibiting empathy and cultural and situational awareness. Extraordinary Leaders will also be digitally literate with the ability to understand and pose the right questions about the potential and challenges of introducing new digital technologies to the enterprise, and be aware of the potential impact of those technologies on people, on work, on jobs, and on society more broadly.
Education and training systems need to take account of digital literacy, of what are often called “soft skills,” and new ideas of leadership. As automated technology takes on more of the tasks that people have focused on in the past, we need to ensure that education and training refocuses on those skills that make us human and allow humans to make a significant difference to the enterprise. And that means rethinking work; not just the work we do, but the culture at work, the degree to which we are going to continue to work remotely, and the empowerment and trust that organisations and leaders will need to exhibit in managing and leading people effectively in their new-look enterprises.
For me, there are eight critical themes that emerge; four each from Navigating a New Landscape and The Next Futures of Organisations and Work. They are:
- Understanding the context for how we got to where we are and how it informs the future
- Creating, enabling, and embracing cycles of experimentation and learning
- Focusing on sustainability and ensuring that when we think of sustainability it is in a balanced context taking in the economy, social issues (health, inequality), as well as the environment
- Communicating with clarity and enabling dialogue to help understand the nature of change and what it might mean for people
- Adopting a new mindset that allows us to un-package what's been successful for us in the past and consider what needs to change for us to continue to be successful in the future
- Adopting a new package of leadership skills and exploring what it means to lead
- Educate, train, and learn for a new future; building on the past but not being constrained by it
- Rethink work; what we mean by work, how jobs might change, and how we look at the role that humans have in the context of using increasingly automated systems.
As other commentators have said, it would be very careless to waste the opportunities presented by such a crisis.
Click here to watch a video of a presentation recently delivered by Steve on behalf of the Institute of Leadership and Management.
Click here for more information about the book Aftershocks and Opportunities – Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss Steve presenting these ideas to your team or at your event.
Image Credit: Alexas Fotos / https://pixabay.com/illustrations/office-work-vacations-recovery-1548293/