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Posted on 15th February 2021
Navigating the future during times of extreme change

Business has spent the past year navigating one of the most unpredictable periods in modern history with the COVID-19 pandemic leaving a trail of destruction and uncertainty in its wake. Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to predict the future accurately? Nada Kakabadse, Professor of Policy, Governance and Ethics at Henley Business School, believes there is a solution.

COVID-19 has left organisations operating in an uncertain world. Boards and employees alike have faced a volatile, complex and ambiguous environment, promising only a challenging future and little guidance on how to remain productive. Normal methods and techniques that enable companies to demonstrate innovation and superior performance have been found wanting.

Strategic change during these times is a challenging endeavour that more often than not fails to meet key stakeholder expectations. Reasons for change are varied and new approaches are often perceived as being inconsistent with others’ values and benefits. This in turn triggers negative emotions that can adversely impact the implementation of change.

In addition change processes can result in a sense of inconsistency. For example, a hasty or secretly prepared downsizing strategy in the immediate aftermath of a ‘compassion-driven’ event such as the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to result in a significant stakeholder backlash.

Other markers of inconsistency associated unfavourably with change include:

  • ‘What’ is being proposed – disagreement over the initiative’s content, scope or motive
  • ‘How’ the initiative is implemented –  disagreement over methods of integration, coordination or a perceived lack of resources
  • ‘Values’ that are at odds with stakeholder expectations - disagreement over the norms being conveyed as crucial to change.

Scenario planning and foresight
Inconsistency between expectation and reality happens when our belief systems are challenged by interfering initiatives. These generate negative emotions that individuals go on to share with others. The scale and spread of negativity will vary from individual-to-individual and can include feelings that range from puzzlement and confusion, through to indignation, worry, shock, annoyance and apathy.

To counter this some organisations use scenario planning, a process that creates imagined future narratives based on factors arising from a particular set of circumstances. A focus is placed on ‘critical uncertainties’ or forces considered important to stakeholders. Insights from this approach can help decision-makers weigh up various options and courses of action to invest in, although the results can be dubious in terms of identifying detailed resolutions.

Others use foresight - a discipline that provides a structured and systematic approach to gaining awareness of mid-to-long-term future possibilities. This improves preparedness and resilience, while also helping management identify relevant forces that influence future developments, and shows how they interact to shape an operating ecosystem’s transition and future.

Strategic implementation
The interplay between multiple initiatives and their subsequent implementation during the pandemic have been complex and often imprecisely conceptualised. Although the organisation’s foresight methods and techniques may promise a desired expectation, this seldom happens.

Achieving the desired results and planned outcomes is contingent on the implementation of strategic initiatives. This requires attention being paid to the people involved in the strategic implementation, and an appreciation of the chosen foresight technique being applied to the problem and the context within this is taking place. Evaluation and feedback throughout the process to correct the strategy as required is also of crucial importance.

For example, once the board approves a strategic change initiative, it is then usually left to management to implement the desired change. However, if the management is focused only on a narrow field of control, or are embedded in autonomous governance structures with insufficient coordination mechanisms in place, inconsistency across the organisation is more likely to surface.

C-suite and various other management levels across the organisation often independently implement changes with a narrow focus on the initiative alone, or with limited attention to the broader social context that may already be under stress from other ongoing change initiatives.

A lack of managerial attention to social context is more likely to result in initiatives being perceived as inconsistent with change activates already in place. Many great strategic initiatives and foresight plans never get implemented due to ignorance of future-making practices by those who have to implement them.

Those who have to implement change strategy on the ground often feel that management is ignorant about how change is implemented, and the level of harm it can sometimes cause. They believe management doesn’t listen to, and has lost touch with its employees.

Even middle managers who initially champion change often became disengaged and hesitant about how to move forward and struggled with this duality of position, being expected by managers to deliver results and at the same time having to respond to criticism from below. Middle managers experience their subordinates’ negative emotions first-hand, and so it is important to understand activities and practices through which people in the organisation will have to engage with in the future.

Predicting the future
We’d all like to be able to predict what will happen to our organisations in the future and understanding future-making practices is the only real way to make this happen. Whether the process is led by strategic or scenario planning, or corporate foresight, it is vital to incorporate the everyday work through which people in the organisation move forward amid uncertainties about the future.

It is these daily routines that bring our futures into being. Similarly boards and top teams need to understand what future-making practices people in organisations actually do, rather than listen to what they say they do. It is necessary to understand the subtle, sometimes tedious and basic-ways in which organisations engage with the future. Only then can people’s creative pursuit of innovation and engagement be fully put into practice and become a core capability and mindset across industry, government, non-governmental organisations, the public and not-for-profit sectors.

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