If we assume, as we should, that history will inevitably repeat itself in some shape or form, how can we ensure we'll be ready for the next crisis?
History seems to repeat itself
As you reflect on various crises over the last 50 years, you cannot ignore the possibility that history does repeat itself—we seem to enter into one kind of disaster or another approximately every decade. There is something about the way markets and the broader system operates that appears to result in this cycle of “boom-followed-by-bust,” creating the challenge for organizations to predict and prepare for this uncertainty and complexity.
The boom has periods of investment, growth, employment, consumption, and excess, followed by the bust period that features austerity, unemployment, investment cuts, bailouts, and new regulations that attempt—but consistently fail—to prevent it from happening again.
Recommendations for a post-pandemic future
As we think about these periods of disruption and the boom-bust cycles, essential lessons are to be learned that, if factored into the strategic approach of governments, sectors, and businesses, will support building resiliency and limit the impacts when they inevitably come. Outlined below are ten essential recommendations that could help lessen future shocks and influence internal systems, leadership approaches, and systemic behaviours within organizations.
1. Reflect on, and avoid mistakes of the past. Companies need to resist the urge to expect that there will be a constantly strong and growing economic system and be prepared for the eventual bust cycle that will come. It’s sometimes easy to fall into a false sense of reality that things are good and will continue to be good, but history shows time and time again that is not the case. Scenario planning helps leaders reflect on the organization’s strategy and evaluate the past, current, and future risks and opportunities.
2. Invest in culture and talent as a differentiator. Proactive investment in organizational culture and the skills and capabilities of a talent base is strongly associated with companies that thrive in challenging conditions, preparing them to take advantage of future upturns. For example, Zappos carefully reinforce culture through 4-week mandatory training for all new employees. Scenario planning requires investing in the right skills and talent to prepare for the brutal realities ahead.
3. Prepare to operate in a tumultuous world. Stability is a thing of the past in an increasingly uncertain world. Organizations should work toward a better understanding of the changing realities of the market. They can do this by increasing their external knowledge and building strategic foresight capabilities. The luxury car manufacturer Rolls-Royce does this by using scenarios to formalize uncertainty management.
4. Focus on the future, not just the present. The most resilient companies are those that balance the needs of the present and the future. It’s easy to get stuck in the moment, thinking only of the short term, but success is achieved by mixing the short term with a long-term view and ensuring strategies and tactics reflect this balanced approach to strategic thinking. Global telecommunications giant Vodafone really focuses on the attributes of resilience through their Future-Ready Report 2020. Scenario planning is, of course, a way of preparing to deal with future realities, whatever they may be.
5. Build organizational shock absorbers. Organizations need to absorb those moments when business is tricky. Canadian banks were able to emerge unscathed from the 2008 financial crisis – the system of large financial institutions with size and diversification enhanced their robustness. Scenario planning helps leaders ensure their business is stress-tested and resilient.
6. Connect with the external world. Companies need to remain connected to external threats, opportunities, stakeholders, customers and emerging technologies always. The moment an organization’s leaders lose sight of this is the moment they will miss something important that could affect their business. Netflix is the master of staying connected with their customer needs through crowdsourcing techniques – in fact, they have consistently predicted and adapted to changing customer needs. Scenario planning is an important defence, a way to monitor the risks, trends, and uncertainties and assess what they mean to your organization.
7. Learn continuously. An organization’s ability to learn and adapt is an essential aspect of overcoming challenges. Global oil and gas company Shell has successfully used scenarios over almost 50 years to help their organization learn from external risks and uncertainties related to trends in renewables, transport, climate change, LNG and more. With the help of scenario planning, leaders can build a business operating model that fosters continual learning.
8. Exploit business opportunities. Even in periods of bust, it’s vital to explore and exploit opportunities. Organizations should pursue innovation, which requires leaders to draw on creativity and fearlessness when they recognize fruitful circumstances. For example, the Port of Vancouver used scenarios to identify a novel partnership with BC Hydro to drive a more sustainable future through what they call the Energy Action Initiative. Scenario planning helps leaders recognize unnoticed possibilities.
9. Stay humble, and don’t think you’re too big to fail. The global banks thought they were too big to fail, but many of them did (ABN AMRO, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch, for example), and others would have collapsed without government bailouts. Scenario planning shows you worst-case scenarios, which helps you remain focused, humble, and prepared.
10. Remember, it starts with you, not others. It’s easy during a crisis to blame others—a broken system, an ineffective government—but the reality is that you only have yourself to blame for not being ready for the crises.
Leadership is essential in driving future-ready organizations
In summary, some critical questions need to be asked. What have we learned? How can we avoid plunging into crisis again? What could be done differently next time? Can we plan to be ready as an organization for possible futures, no matter how bad and unpredictable they may be? This is not solved just at the company level but at the political, system, industry, country, and global level. We need better long-term approaches to protect our economies with more sophisticated systems thinking and intelligent organizations. We also need strong leaders who believe in diverging directions involving various techniques, which will lead to new and effective ideas (this is the definition of creativity). These leaders should factor in the broader external forces and prepare for constant change ahead by being a lot more future-ready.
Authored by Lance Mortlock (Senior EY Strategy Partner & Haskayne School of Business Visiting Professor).