‘Never assume the future will be an extension of the past’ Scenario planning in the Age of COVID-19
Matt Finch sat down with Trudi Lang, a senior fellow in management practice at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. Lang is a researcher and strategist with particular expertise in scenario planning, a foresight methodology that seeks not to predict the future but to usefully challenge our assumptions about what’s coming next.
“The key challenge of government is to prepare for a future in which we will be surprised time and again,” said Peter Ho, then Singapore’s top civil servant, in 2009.
Few people at the start of 2020 would have anticipated an enormous symmetric shock affecting the entire world, demanding drastic interventions from the state — yet experts had been warning of a pandemic for considerable time. Indeed, as the New York Times reported in March, the US federal government had rehearsed for a pandemic three times over the last four years.
Despite such rehearsals and the warnings of experts, many governments have been caught on the back foot by COVID-19. Countries that were considered to have an excellent capacity for pandemic response — the US and UK had been ranked highest among 195 countries’ ability to prevent and mitigate pandemics in 2019 — have found themselves floundering.
With the world plunged into uncertainty, how do we navigate the turmoil of the current pandemic and look beyond the crisis, into a future that is hard to picture clearly?
Living and learning foresight: From Western Australia to the World Economic Forum
For Trudi Lang, the current pandemic represents a profound and dramatic transformation of the contexts in which we operate: “Even if we foresaw the possibility of an outbreak of a contagious disease, the exponential nature of COVID-19’s growth has been remarkable. It’s certainly the first time in my lifetime that I’ve seen such a stark and global example of exponential (as compared to more linear) change.”
Prior to joining the Saïd Business School, Lang was Director and Head of Strategic Foresight for the World Economic Forum, and also worked as a foresight consultant for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But her first experiences of constructively engaging with the future came from life as a farm girl in Western Australia.
In agriculture, many factors are “extrinsic” or beyond an individual’s control — whether that’s the weather, the cost of fuelling machinery, or the price of a crop, which is dependent on the harvest in other parts of the world. For Lang’s family, the fortunes of their farm relied on them finding ways to cope with a degree of constant uncertainty.
Lang says, “I didn’t just grasp the idea of future uncertainty intellectually: I lived it. What growing up on the farm taught me is that, no matter what you do, the future is not always going to be a replication of the past. That’s a useful lesson to recall in the current pandemic. It’s an extreme
example, but it reflects what we learned on the farm: you can never assume that good years are going to last nor that the future will necessarily be an extension of the past.”
Today, Lang is a champion of foresight methods including the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, which is designed to help organisations cope with situations characterised by “TUNA conditions”: Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty, and Ambiguity.
TUNA fishing in the age of COVID-19
Lang explains that scenario planning “enables us to discuss and frame in different ways what we see around us, thereby helping make sense of the uncertainty in our midst and how things may play out.”
Unlike forecasting approaches, which seek to model and predict what awaits us, a foresight approach needn’t correctly anticipate the one future which will certainly come to pass. Instead, it will identify a wider range of future uncertainties, trends, and issues which may affect and inform strategic decisions.
In the immediate context of the current coronavirus outbreak, Lang says that such considerations include the breadth, depth, and duration of current uncertainties. Which of the changes we are currently seeing might prove to be permanent? Will COVID-19 outbreaks recur for a long time? How will the pandemic relate to other pressing global issues such as climate change and inequality? Will emergence from the crisis be characterised by spurts and starts, a continuous and orderly progression, or an ongoing mess?
Lang and her Saïd colleague Rafael Ramírez have published guidance for organisations seeking to use scenario planning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the key points is that, while strategic work often involves long-term considerations, pandemic scenario planning may require shorter time horizons.
Lang explains that with the approach used by her and her colleagues, “The focus is on the present, for example related to a strategic action to be taken or sense to be made of an emerging situation. The scenarios are about exploring the future context of that action or situation, thereby opening up new ways of seeing the options in the present.”
This means that instead of creating scenarios for a distant time, a project may focus on a closer date — a matter of weeks or months from now, if your question is around emergence from quarantine or lockdown. Lang cautions that thinking about the pandemic’s aftermath, and what that means for your organisation, might be better addressed from the vantage point of a scenario two- to five-years hence, or even further.
While timescales can be condensed in the era of COVID-19, it may be that plausibility needs to be stretched. Scenario planning describes future situations which provide both challenging and useful inputs to the decision-making process, even if they do not come to pass. The extreme nature of the current situation creates opportunities to explore even more challenging future contexts than would usually be contemplated.
Lang notes that “Contingency planning is about risk, which involves some judgements about probability and impact, and results in a contingency plan to cover the risk. Scenarios address deep uncertainty where probabilities can’t be judged. Scenarios may highlight or identify new risks, but they will also reframe a situation, indicating potential new opportunities and collaborations. By stretching plausibility, the scenarios can become more insightful and challenging, and thus far more useful as they help people learn more about what might be.”
Getting the basics right
Even if the pandemic accelerates or accentuates some aspects of scenario planning, it’s still important to get the basics right. Above all, that means attending carefully to who will use the scenarios, and for what purpose. This is what makes the difference between a project with useful outcomes, and one which is merely a speculative visioning project.
“Scenarios are a means to an end,” says Lang, “so being grounded in what people are trying to achieve is key. What is the purpose of your organisation? What makes people excited about their work? What makes them care? Scenarios are about future contexts people may have to inhabit, so connect these futures with what your organisation is fundamentally trying to achieve.”
If you fail to carefully identify and secure the intended use and user of your scenarios, the project may, unsurprisingly, prove useless and its insights will not be acted upon. The US government’s multiple rehearsals for a pandemic over recent years may prove instructive in this regard.
Lang notes that pandemics have been included in scenarios before, but this inclusion hasn’t always led to preparatory action: “Scenarios are a means to an end, not the end in itself. If a pandemic arises in foresight work, but we remain ill-prepared, a factor to consider is whether the work had a clear user and use.”
Scenario planning has been welcomed into some governments and public bodies, alongside its uptake in the corporate world, but distinctive approaches may be required to suit the public sector’s unique features and the complexity of its stakeholder relationships.
Lang suggests that one approach is for public bodies to consider scenario planning as a conversation to be hosted. Project organisers are bringing together stakeholders to jointly inquire into a future strategic context and explore new options: “Learning through the conversation builds a shared language and a shared understanding among people, with the result that valuable new collaborations can be enabled that mobilise resources and open up new opportunities.”
Building social capital and enriching strategic thinking
Lang’s academic research has indicated that building new social capital can be a key reason for undertaking scenario planning. Scenario projects, being highly collaborative, can create new and stronger ties between participants, increasing the richness and extent of the network through which new strategic ideas and opportunities are identified and taken forward. Departments, teams, and stakeholders used to working from different perspectives can develop a shared language and find common ground in their collective discussion of the future.
Lang points to Singapore as one example of a country which is constantly considering what might change in its future, and how that change might be harnessed to beneficial ends. Given its lack of natural resources, its size, and its location, Singapore cannot afford strategic complacency and has a strong public sector scenario planning tradition. Singaporean civil servants use the technique, Lang explains, “to frame and reframe their understanding of what is evolving to generate new opportunities and identify emerging risks.”
While Singapore has been all too aware of the uncertainties in its future, is it possible that Australia’s resource wealth, and the era of the mining boom, have insulated it from such sensitivity to strategic challenges? Beyond its direct health impacts, the pandemic has bought into stark relief issues that Australians had taken for granted.
“For example,” Lang points out, “there was no real disadvantage in shifting manufacturing offshore because keeping the costs of production down was perhaps the key decision criteria. One of the effects of this decision has been to trade a form of resilience for efficiency; how will the relationship between these two develop post-pandemic?”
Exploring such questions is where foresight comes into play. For people who wish to embark on scenario planning, Lang advises them to speak with someone who already has experience of the approach: “If scenarios work is new to your organisation, bear in mind that this may be about introducing a new way of working that may be unfamiliar; every organisation will have its own ways of thinking about the future and informing strategic decision making. Consider starting in a small way, giving people the opportunity to become involved and familiar with the practice to adapt it to the needs of the organisation.”
Some people within a given organisation may be particularly keen to engage with the future using new methods, and excited about embracing a new challenge.
Lang notes: “Usually these creative and imaginative people are also good strategic thinkers, seeing rich interconnections in the issues they uncover. But remember to also bring in new, less familiar perspectives by interviewing people outside your organisation or inviting them into your scenarios conversations.”
“When you help people to realise that they are already working with a set of expectations and assumptions about the future, they get curious about unpacking those assumptions, questioning them, and opening up, getting more imaginative. Once you realise what your assumptions are, you can start to look beyond them, and locate your blind spots.”