'We know now, living in our very complex and always-shifting world, that we can’t predict or know the future'
In the pre-COVID-19 world, companies believed the environment was stable enough to project years ahead — it wasn’t uncommon to have 10, 15 or even 20-year strategic plans. And then, the pandemic showed everyone how dangerous it is to believe you can plan definitively.
“We know now, living in our very complex and always-shifting world, that we can’t predict or know the future,” says Brenda Barker Scott, instructor of organizational development at Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre. “But prediction isn’t our work right now — organizations should be focusing on preparedness.”
She likens it to climbing Mount Everest — you do everything you can to prepare but you can’t possibly control what’s going to happen on the mountain. You can’t predict the weather, for example, or what you're going to find as you climb. But with preparedness, you can pivot; by thinking of plausible scenarios “we've readied ourselves, and so as events happen they are not unfamiliar to us.”
“We'll have a strategy in the making as opposed to having none of the groundwork. Just like you need water, food, equipment, a map, a plan — all of that is necessary to prepare, but you can’t control.”
Barker Scott says that despite the turmoil, organizations surprised themselves in how good a job they’ve done responding to the global pandemic. They quickly mobilized resources from the office to a virtual space and figured out how to support remote teams, and it’s showing organizations they can be more responsive than they believed they could be.
“Protocols they thought were sacred and would be unthinkable to shift, they’ve shifted overnight — and actually things have been OK,” Barker Scott says, noting there’s a silver lining in the upheaval. “It’s an interesting time where there’s an opening that is being created for organizations to really rethink what their business is and how they want to deliver it.”
A tool Barker Scott has used in the IRC’s Designing Collaborative Workplaces program for the past 15 years is a good way for leadership to figure out the direction it wants to take. Called Preparing for the Future with Scenarios, the exercise was originally adapted from an Edward de Bono exercise to facilitate innovative thinking and when the pandemic happened Barker Scott tweaked it again to suit the situation.
According to the guide [https://irc.queensu.ca/articles/preparing-future-scenarios] from Queen’s IRC, the four steps of the exercise are: 1. Brainstorm what’s happening and will happen in the short (today and the next few weeks), medium ( 2-6 months) and longer (6 months-2 years) terms; 2. Discuss your lists to identify patterns, pivotal circumstances and insights; 3. Identify your core stakeholders, their needs and your response; 4. Plan for taking action.
The exercise should lead to fruitful insights around how client needs are changing, how products and services need to be adapted and how current capabilities can be leveraged, Barker Scott notes, and it can also be done more than once. Three months out, do it again “because you're going to be able to test those initial assumptions to see if they were worthy or they may have changed.”
“It doesn’t presuppose that we're going to know the answers and that we can be definitive,” she says. “What it does is bring a diverse group of people together and give them an opportunity to bring everything they know about the current state and what they predict or envision for the next stages, so that they can get ready for possible futures.”
The different time frames are a critical piece of the exercise that offer important insight “because peoples' behaviour and situations change over time — you can see this with the pandemic.”
Initially everybody was reacting, pivoting from the workplace to the home space as quickly as possible, and now there’s a new phase where people are settling in and improving their online tools — which at first may have been pretty rough — and consolidating their virtual team practices. Then in the future, there might be big changes to business models as organizations adapt to what they're learning — for example the development of a blended service delivery model.
The exercise helps teams envision different possibilities so that they can adapt over time and be as ready as possible, Barker Scott says. It’s like preparing for the next phase one phase ahead as opposed to getting stuck believing any one time frame is constant, which leads to missing how behaviours need to shift with the changing context and environment.
“Organizations are realizing that we can’t control, we can’t plan definitively,” Barker Scott says. “They need to have a governance system whereby they are constantly reading the signs and trying to be aware of what’s going on out there with clients, the environment, the industry, new standards — we need to be much more aware so that we can adapt.”
One thing’s for sure, Barker Scott says, the new trend is that “we’re going to be constantly shifting, and our organizations need to be agile to do that.” Take education for example — it’s “a big experiment” at the moment as universities and colleges move to online environments, and she predicts virtual and blended models will evolve well beyond what's possible today.
What’s important going forward in the new virtual settings, Barker Scott suggests, is fostering of a sense of community – organizations will “really need to double down” on helping people continue to feel a sense of belongingness to not just their teams, but to the wider organization, something that happened by osmosis in an office setting.
Barker Scott says it’s essential for directors of human resources and their leadership teams to nurture that social fabric during this time as it’s key for innovation, collaboration and responsiveness. The question becomes how do we create that when people are working virtually?
“Right now, our organizations are relying on the sense of community that has evolved over time, but we don’t know how long this built-up sense of community will last,” Barker Scott says. “It needs to be cultivated continuously.”
Activities like the Preparing for the Future with Scenarios exercise, on top of being plain good for business, provide that sense of connectivity and organizational purpose while empowering people to strategize for their future — and that’s very powerful.
“We're living in a VUCA world — volatile uncertain, complex and ambiguous — that’s constantly changing,” says Barker Scott. “We can't possibly know what's coming. It helps to think ahead and to be as ready as you can be — still knowing you can’t be certain.”