Photo with the word 'plan' written on a notepad

Returning to work and scenario planning after a crisis situation

Robert Coles 13th June 2020

What is the future for our organisations after Covid-19? Business scenario planning and future thinking will be vital: do you know how to think the unthinkable?

Covid-19 has brought new challenges to the workplace, highlighting the importance of resilience and wellbeing, refocusing how we think about scenario planning, and insisting we consider the future. In this short interview series Roffey Park CEO, Dr Robert Coles, shares his insights into how organisations and their employees will be affected by the coronavirus crisis, and how they should respond.

Here, he looks at business scenario planning advantages and disadvantages, scenario planning analysis, scenario planning techniques and futures thinking.

Where do you start with futures thinking and scenario planning after such a huge upheaval and while everything familiar is still up in the air? 

“Where you start is by recognising that, if there’s a problem, you’ve got good things to learn. Organisations don’t tend to innovate unless doing so in extremis. When things are bumbling along nicely we adapt here and there, solve a problem or resolve an issue. What a crisis brings is a genuine opportunity to reset your assumptions, and that’s what scenario planning is all about.

“So one of the first things we need to be asking ourselves is: what have we learned that is useful in changing our assumptions about the way we do things, why we do things and who we do them with?

Capturing some of the genuine innovative stuff that’s gone on at a personal, team or entity level is our number one priority, because otherwise we will dump all of our learning in the mistaken belief that we don’t need it.

We talk with organisations that say ‘give it a few weeks and it will all be back to normal’. That shows an inability to accept what has happened, a lack of resilience, perhaps. Let’s confront what is obvious and clear: that the normal that was and normal that will be are two different animals with different sets of assumptions. So first, let’s capture what we’ve learned and changed so we can take those two things forward with us.

Emergencies always create space for change and innovation.”

What kind of innovations have organisations made during the crisis? 

“I was talking to an organisational development manager at a Nightingale Hospital, who described some of the tactics they’ve learned from the army, for example in the way they kick-off their day, with rapid, agile planning. She said she’d keep that, she’d learned agile tactics for planning and action. Ideas that, in more typical times when the NHS was its normal massive bureaucratic structure, wouldn’t have been obvious things to do but now they are and need to be captured.

Agility, being prepared to drop typical action and decision-making processes for faster, more flexible approaches is vital. I think the change in an organisation’s ‘rate of situational response’ is a measure of its capacity to innovate.

What should organisations do in a formal sense to learn from this? How should they go about scenario planning? When?

“Organisations are going to have to do scenario planning for years, for the very simple reason that there is not one scenario emerging that could be managed; there are many. In effect, we’re looking at what might be and what could be: it’s not looking at ‘how do we?’ or “what do we?”. Those questions are operational planning. Scenario planning is about imagining possibilities.

“Possibilities require us to drop ‘all or nothing’ thinking, or big abstract, definitive statements. For example, I heard a guy on the Today programme saying he may never be able to open his chain of restaurants again. I heard another say that large offices are a ‘thing of the past’ Are these scenarios? They may happen perhaps. What they are, for sure, is massive definitive statements.

The more likely future scenarios are likely to be much more nuanced and require constant adaptation.

“But if it’s true that city workers are never going to come back to their offices, as a restauranteur suddenly I don’t need half my workforce, I don’t need all my restaurants or to pay all that rent. All those are maybes. However, there are others. Could the spaces I don’t need become cooperatives that my ex-employees run, as a social enterprise for example? Could I turn some of my offices into blended, analogue/ digital spaces? Could I incubate other, new generation entrepreneurs?

Imagination and creativity are key in scenario planning and to start with, you should always seek to undermine your immediate, early assumptions.”

“I have a practical example: I’m left handed and footed and I do a lot of climbing all over the world. Years ago, climbing with a bunch of American guys, one said ‘you always lead with your left foot’. I said that was because I was left footed: he said that doesn’t mean you have to always lead with your left foot. I went away, thought about that and tried leading with the right side rather than the left. You try doing that, leading with the opposite side of what you’re used to doing and you find that things don’t work as they ought to!

Scenario planning is like that: it’s about challenging the basic walls that surround you in terms of the assumptions you make.

“The first step is to imagine, to create propositions. The power of collective imagination is really cool. Go outside your usual group and look for external advocates. Has this worked before? Are others thinking about this? Are there other examples? You need to talk to other people about what you’re thinking and get feedback evidence on what might work.

“Then you need to test the validity of ideas. So, do I climb faster? Do I expend less energy? Am I able to deal with more complex turns than I would otherwise or does it tire me out and cause me stress and make me less effective? What are we going to look for in terms of enabling or retraining factors that will enable me to evaluate whether this is a good idea in practice – or not?

“And of course, you have to do that wonderful thing which is suck it and see. Part of scenario planning is that, from a thousand plans one will bloom: you’ve got to be willing to test stuff, see if it works and be prepared to respond quickly to what’s happening.

“There’s a process of imagination, of collaborative imagination but first and foremost of evidence gathering in scenario planning. How am I going to identify success and failure? What am I looking for? What evidence will I use? You work on those things, put them into practice, see how they play and the reason you’re going to have to do that over and over again is because we don’t know how long this Covid thing is going to carry on. It may be that there’s a vaccine within months or an antibody test will tell you that you have CV or it may be that the antibodies disappear after a few months and you simply will never know. Maybe.

How can we create the best working environment to plan for the future in our organisation?

“We are in a world of uncertainty where being connected, collaborative and imaginative is really helpful. If you try to reinstate a previous environment that says, ‘let’s get back to what we were, what we were doing and what we were being,’ you’re likely to struggle. In service industries in particular, where many assumptions have shifted, you have to be really creative and thoughtful.

“I recently saw a picture on LinkedIn of a restaurant which had bought lots of small greenhouses it had put outside so it could serve people there. That’s neat, that’s creative thinking: they could be isolated from everybody else but still go out to dinner. That’s the kind of imaginative stuff we really need to do.

“If we make the mistake that imagination or creativity or knowledge lies in a dozen or so self-appointed leaders we will fail to capture the imagination of hundreds or thousands of colleagues who may have fundamentally different ideas, some of which will be brilliant. The more we listen, the more we collaborate, the more we revitalise our organisation by reimagining it together, the better those scenarios are likely to be.

“We have to be almost like children. We have to ask the ‘what if’ question and tell a story about it.”

What is the role for leadership and management in scenario planning to move on after the crisis?

“Over long periods of relative stability, leadership and management can become little more than operationalisation or implementation of the predictable.

There’s been very little innovation in leadership practice but it will need to be the norm that we create narratives, imagine scenarios, find evidence for them, create the metrics and test them out. And if they’re not working, rapidly shift into something else. Leadership needs to arise out of action, rather than being held in roles. If you can co-create, and take people with you, and challenge embedded habits of mind, and bring a community with you to the future state, you’re a leader for the future. If you can’t, you’re not.

“We need to be Agile in our methods and agile and socially connected in our behaviours.”

How could organisations use futures thinking to make sense of what happens next?

“It’s back to the principle of Imagineering: if you can imagine something then it’s possible, as somebody once said. That doesn’t mean it’s likely, of course, but possible. Futures thinking and scenario planning and quantum leap thinking are ways of breaking up assumptions or turning them inside out. In that way, you create opportunities to think differently.

“It’s the taken-for-granted things that we need to challenge. Today, 25 percent of British workers are effectively paid by the government, while in Latin America, Europe and North America there is discussion of the so-called social wage which some economists say is the way of the world in the future. In China there’s a social scoring system that rewards behaviour. These are things which have been long thought of as fringe or the extreme end of economics or politics, yet they are suddenly the reality in some of the advanced economies.

“We are paying people to stay at home and creating money electronically to do it, and if you can do it once you can do it forever. So, some of the taken-for-granted assumptions – for instance that the only way to self-respect is to roll up your sleeves and work hard – now apparently aren’t valid. The restaurant owner who only needs half his staff asked: is the government going to pay the other half of his employees, or will the government pay for all of them for half of the time? There are massive changes in assumptions and that’s where future thinking will lie.”

“How do you reimagine the unimaginable? A project in Latin America paid unemployed people enough of a salary that they could contribute as consumers in society, enabling others to produce and giving everyone a role. That’s kind of spooky but it works, apparently. Our task is to collectively imagine our way through these complex options, so that we consider all of humanity and lean more towards the utopian than dystopian alternatives.

“There was a guy last year promoting the idea we would all have a robot which would go to work on our behalf, and we would earn the salary.  I love that! or that I could buy several driverless cars which would pay for itself by picking people up on demand.

There are all sorts of ways in which the principle of an hour’s work for an hour’s pay is breaking down – for some of the Instagram generation it has already broken down – but the concept of sending technology out to work on our behalf is fascinating. That’s future type thinking.”

What role might OD play in helping organisations through the next stages of the crisis?

“I’m a well-known critic of organisational development, but it does have a role. It is, at a meta level, a wonderful discipline, bringing conflicting and varied forces to bear on problems, so in that way it has real potential.

“If OD sees itself as an enabler of bringing diverse drivers, forces, enablers and contradictors into a conversation to imagine and create scenarios, futures and alternatives, then I think it has a great future. But, that requires a mindset change among practitioners from being almost unthinking channellers of systems theory – itself a highly questionable premise in the digital world – to much more open-minded and reflexive ways of bringing diversity to bear on the problems we face.

“We would be social organisational developers if we saw ourselves in that context. We would de-centre the pervasive system and re-privilege the human and the social connections, and allow collective imagination to flow. That would be great OD.”

What does this crisis mean for the future? Read What Does This Crisis Mean For Our Future, the  next blog with Robert Coles, or find out how the Roffey Park team is supporting organisations through this crisis.