Once in a lifetime something comes to pass that has the power to fundamentally change the world. An event that can accelerate evolution, spark extensive disruption and create a paradigm shift in the human experience. The COVID pandemic is such an event; a deeply moving and far-reaching shared experience that will forever alter human consciousness and ignite a paradigm shift in the human experience.
Suddenly a primitive organism has caused our civilisation to collapse into chaos. The virus has shown nature to be a formidable force. The ‘virus problem’ was predicted and war-gamed extensively but our forays into the unknown seemed to stop at the threshold of known viruses. The systems and processes required for such an outlier event were not imagined, let alone put into place. Our ‘normal’ system of civilisation has been shown to be lacking resilience. Our species has been caught napping – focusing on the short-term rather than exploring the far horizon.
Could this pandemic be the wake-up call that galvanises the human race in a collective effort to find a more sustainable way of life and to respect the potentially more disastrous natural forces ominously gathering in our shared future, or will we all slip back to the way we were?
We have a moment in time where we can drastically alter how we respond to events and collectively decide upon a trajectory to follow. We may wish that the COVID pandemic didn’t happen – but it did. Do we want the world to operate as if COVID never happened or do we want to use the experience as a catalyst to bring about a brighter future?
Now is the time to identify critical uncertainties. The universe is a complex web of cause, effect and chaos that we will never understand – a veritable wicked web. What change has the pandemic accelerated or derailed? What ideas has it inspired? What disruption will it bring to our strategic context forever? How will it change our culture? What future wicked problems has the pandemic given seed to?
The limits of our current system have been brutally exposed – now is our chance to think in a trans-generational manner and use our vast imaginations to collectively chart a new course. We must balance our urgent crisis response with a genuine and comprehensive exploration of the longer-term future. Our decisions and our behaviour matter a lot – what we do now will impact the future of humankind in myriad ways.
Projection and extrapolation can get us so far, but they are curtailed by our existing context and its routine thinking and behaviours. To re-imagine the future, we must explore a range of possible alternative futures and build forward in a way we could not have perceived pre-pandemic.!
We have been living in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world for some time. Over recent years this environment has been further complicated by shifts in the geopolitical climate and a greater tendency of those in power to be sparing with the truth – we’re living in the post-truth fast show. The COVID pandemic has only served to increase the speed of change and exponentially dial up the volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity in which we find ourselves.
This acceleration has amplified the impact of critical events and decisions taken and has exponentially shortened the distance to an ‘event horizon’. Change that may have been predicted to take 10 years is suddenly squeezed into a far shorter time frame. What we perceived as one of many potential long-term futures suddenly appears as near-term events, environments and choices.
To make sense of this complex web of cause, effect and time (‘chaos’) we have to step back from our habitual ways of operating and acknowledge that the world as we know it right now didn’t exist a century ago and almost certainly won’t exist a century from now. If we were able to view the current world from the perspective of someone living a century ago it would seem fantastical.
To anticipate the future with any degree of prophetic accuracy we need to suspend our current worldview and look forward with an openness of mind and curiosity that takes us beyond the inevitable mental confines of our current reality.
Fortunately, humans are blessed with the capacity to imagine the future. It is this ability that allows us to plan effectively, mitigate risk, and apply lessons learned (sometimes through failure) to future situations.
As we enter the objective, pragmatic and somewhat cynical adult world we can tend to leave the creative side of our imagination somewhere deep in our childhood, but this is where the magic resides.
By reigniting our creative minds, we can imagine plausible, possible, and perhaps challenging futures that provide us with a backdrop against which to challenge assumptions, stress-test existing strategy and formulate new strategic options.
We call these fictional worlds what-if-worlds and we use them to create a safe playground for thought experiments, a vehicle for the examination of individual and team behaviours, generation of high-quality strategic dialogue, and identification and isolation of future wicked problems.
The strategic planning process in many organisations is rigid, time-bound, highly objective and strictly ruled by convention. Imagining what-if-worlds can drive deeper thinking, broaden horizon scanning and incubate inclusive and insightful strategic dialogue.
This one magical ingredient can be the key to actively responding to the future as it emerges and, in some cases, creating a desired future strategic context. Using what-if-worlds as the lens through which to create supple strategy allows organisations to be agile to whatever the emerging future presents.
We like to think of this as strategic alchemy – a seemingly magical process of transformation and creation that creates elusive and powerful results.
None of us truly know what’s around the next corner but we can, without doubt, better prepare ourselves for any potential futures that may come to be. The odd mental ‘time-travelling’ expedition can unveil disruptions and disruptors, and better prepare us for the most challenging eventualities.
4 visions of the future
Each of our four what-if-worlds is a snapshot of a potential, plausible future. What-if-worlds are not meant to be predictions – nobody can predict the future. They are imagination experiments; fictional worlds that draw on the present, the past, and the power of our imagination to project a future where we can safely play. They are built upon foundations of present reality, human behaviour and systemic patterns. The idea is to use our imagination to move beyond our prediction addiction, to capture what may at first seem impossible or highly improbable – it is in that unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable, space that we might find a glimpse of what the future may actually hold in store for us!
What-if-worlds examine human behaviours and societal norms alongside possible geopolitical landscapes, environmental contexts, legal and regulatory frameworks and emerging technological capabilities. Each potential future reality gives rise to challenges, risks and opportunities. While each one of them is, of course, fiction they are entirely possible and plausible. It’s unlikely that any one of these four what-if-worlds turn out to be an accurate reflection of the future, yet all may have valuable kernels of truth in them. The actual future may well combine elements of a number of the what-if-worlds to create a hybrid scenario or, the future may be entirely different to them all and unimaginable from the perspective of the position in time from which we have created them.
One of our what-if-worlds may prove to be a milestone on the path towards another what-if-world, or we may encounter versions of more than one of these scenarios on our journey into the unknown. Regardless of the outcome, the thought experiment will have helped open our minds to possibilities, prime our intellectual curiosity and amplify our horizon scanning habits, while we watchfully wait to see what transpires.
Our four what-if-worlds provide a high-level vision of four possible futures and the global patterns that define them. Use them as lenses to explore a specific region, sector, market or product, and test your existing strategic choices against them to enhance the quality of the strategic conversations you are part of.
Without further delay, let’s embark on our voyage into 4 visions of the future…
So what; now what?
Hopefully our four what-if-worlds have stirred your creative juices. The actual future is unlikely to be exactly like any one of them, and may unfold entirely differently to all of them, but often we can see some elements of a scenario appearing as the future unfolds. The elements may not be exactly as we had imagined, or to the extent explored in a what-if-world, but might suggest an interesting avenue for exploration.
Regardless, the very exercise of thinking about the future and creating what-if-worlds prepares our brains and enhances our thinking processes for such eventualities, and draws our attention to emerging patterns and clues along the way.
For a strategy to be successful, it must be supple to the many possibilities presented by the unknowable future. Supple strategy is agile to adapt to whatever future unfolds, and may allow you to influence quite how that future unfolds and what elements its strategic context might contain.
The first step towards supple strategy is quality strategic dialogue, unbound from the shackles of operational, predictive thinking. To master the art of working with the future we must ditch any addiction to prediction and be willing to play with the unknown and unknowable. We must look up from our spreadsheets and short-term forecasting towards a more distant horizon of the mid- to long-term. And then, we must be willing and able to make lane changes and U-turns as the strategic context alters fundamentally in front of our eyes or signals emerge that it is about to do so.
Horizon scanning must be of such quality, breadth and intensity that it becomes a respected early warning system that signals great changes on the horizon; picking up young signals and signals that challenge the dominant logic of the present. Strategic plans must be regularly tested and re-imagined through the lens of long-term potential futures and the future we can more readily see unfolding near-term.
In the context of COVID, much of the resulting change will not yet have been experienced or indeed recognised. The pandemic will have myriad impacts across the world on our geopolitical environment, legal and regulatory frameworks, technological capabilities and capacity, human behaviour and societal habits, environmental footprint, economical models, commercial frameworks for competition and collaboration, and the production and consumption of energy, water and food. How might the COVID pandemic affect the strategic context your organisation operates within and what assumptions is your current strategy reliant upon that may no longer be relevant?
The COVID pandemic is a very visible driver for a significantly changed future context. It will have a massive immediate and longer-term impact, some elements of which won’t yet be apparent. But it is only one of many major incidents that will change the course of the future, many of which are less obvious, and create subtle impacts that generate ripples of change that remain almost imperceptible until they become great waves. What great waves are on your critical path?
It might be useful to ask yourself (and your leadership team):
- When thinking about the future, making plans and discussing strategic options, what time span do we typically look to and engage with?
- How much is our conversation based on what we already know and how can we extend the conversation into the unknown or perhaps the unknowable?
- What parameters do we set when considering the context within which we operate? How far and wide do we look?
- What drives us to have a strategic conversation? What has to happen for us to consciously think about the future?
- Who gets involved in debates about the future and how do we make sure the right people are in the room?
- Where’s our organisational head at? Is it worrying about threats, optimising results, exploiting opportunities or crafting a better world for us and everyone in it?
- When was the last time we seriously contemplated the operating model and its fitness for the future, let alone the present?
- When might we revisit strategic plans and how does this happen?
- What feedback and learning mechanisms are in place – and who’s genuinely listening?
- If we received data that told us our strategy was misguided or wrong, would we have the guts to turn around or take a new path, or would we carry on regardless?
- What assumptions underpin our organisation’s existing strategy and/or its operating model? What has to be true for our organisation to be successful in its present state and form?
Extend your horizon
We hope these what-if-worlds have extended your horizon, broadened your perspective and opened your mind to a future that may be quite different to our present reality. Opening our minds to a wide range of potential outcomes can help us to create a future we would like to see – or at least be best prepared as the future unfolds.
Please share these what-if-worlds far and wide with your social and professional networks and encourage everyone to use them freely to deepen dialogue, challenge assumptions and push the boundaries of individual and collective imagination. If you would like to explore how we can help you and your organisation to navigate uncertainty and re-imagine the emerging future.