Now is the time to think about what is next after what is next

Updated and improved on 18 April 2020, Originally published, March 19 2020

I have found the past month a bit surreal, to say the least. When I travelled through an international airport at the end of January I saw paramedics treating a person who had collapsed. The paramedics were not wearing masks and gloves, while a gaping growing crowd gathered to watch, despite the fact that they already knew about the Covid-19 virus. That was the moment when I realised that I would have to suspend my travels for a while.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received many calls and emails from business and government leaders asking me to help them to think through their options. Some even asked for scenarios. First, let me explain why just jumping straight to scenarios is not a good idea right now with all the contradictory information we are being inundated with.

With all the uncertainty and confusion right now, public and business leaders need some vision of the future to work towards. Hence the image of this blog is a meerkat looking away from whatever the others are occupying themselves with. But different leaders have slightly different motivations. While some people require very little information to make decisions, others need lots of evidence and data. The first group are most likely the innovators and creators of new markets and business models, while the second group may be those that are more focused on incrementally improving what already exists or what is in place. I will refer to the first group as the innovators and the second group as the system optimisers.

We need both innovators and system optimisers to create the future, but they are driven by different motivations and often take different paths if you do not get them to explore a shared mental map. The first group, the innovators, needs a problem to explore and space to try new things, while the system optimisers need a target to reach and sufficient authority over resources to get there. The system builders will look at the facts and data and will think you are crazy if you want to talk about a post-crisis positioning strategy. The innovators will go nuts if you ask them to improve the system when they feel that the way the world works is being questioned. You need these groups to work together – one shared picture, and different yet complementary skills.

So if I had to help your team think about the options right now, a first step would be to think of what could possibly happen next. Yes, it is that simple. Maybe it takes only a few minutes. But this gives us some possible trajectories, and we can explore the ups and downs of each. At least we then have some options to choose from.

I agree that looking at the immediate options is not enough. That is too short term. So we have to ask a second round of “what’s next?” questions and try to explore the decision branches from the previously identified possibilities. Now the innovators can start thinking about new arrangements, new connections, new formulations of what already exists. The system builders will most likely already be a little frustrated with all the hypothetical talk, so they need to be enabled to start thinking of what must be decided or put in place to go down certain paths while avoiding others.

I know this is very simplistic, but my experience right now is that it is very hard to ask people to think six months or three years in advance. But for us to shape what is coming, we have to get more leaders thinking about what is emerging and what is emerging after what is next. This is hard to type, but it is even harder to ponder.

I know that some of my mentors, like Dave Snowden, will baulk at me even proposing a two-by-two matrix as the basis for a scenario exercise, so I hope he will not see this post. Using a simple matrix is a straightforward way to get people to think of alternatives that they struggle to consider if you don’t take them on a structured thinking journey.

Here is a simple scenario matrix that I have been using this week to guide some of my clients. They are all facing a lot of uncertainty about how to make decisions in the next few weeks.

On the Y-axis at the top is “Change initiated by us”, and at the bottom is “Change initiated by others” (Yes, I know that looks as though it is the past tense, but just humour me). On the X-axis on the left is “Past orientation, focused on evidence and recent data” and on the right “Future orientation, focused on what is possible next … and next”.

Yes, again the immediate focus. My sense right now is to think shorter term just for a few days. Just get your team to start building a shared mental map. Then you can push further into the future.

Let us now think through these quadrants. Simply combine the statement on the Y-axis with the statement on the X-axis. You can start in any of the quadrants. I find it easier to start on the left in the past, combined with changes initiated by others. This is what we have to respond to.

Here is a write-up of a telephone conversation I had with a client today. It was surprisingly similar to a conversation I had yesterday with another client in the Not-for-Profit sector. You can skip this if you want to.

We started at the bottom left (which made sense to me because he felt that his hand was being forced, even though he understood that based on the evidence the government was probably making the right decisions). We spoke about the self-isolation of his team, the rapidly worsening statistics, and what it would mean for his organisation if the government (and others he depends on) made the obvious decisions. We explored which data was reliable and valuable enough to track.  Next, we moved to the top-left quadrant. Based on the data and evidence, what decisions should he be making? He immediately realised there were some pretty obvious decisions that he simply had to announce. We also reflected on what he had already done and explored how he knew that he had made the right decisions. 

Then we moved to the bottom right quadrant. We started to consider what changes might be made by others next. And next. He realised that we might move to complete quarantine if the government felt it was necessary. He realised that he would be forced to close large parts of his business, so he could explore with his team what they would need to keep some operations viable. He realised that if his suppliers closed, he would be in trouble, so he had to remain in close contact with them to know what their plans were for the next few days.

In the top-right quadrant, he realised that he had to consider a “dry run” to practice with his team to work together even when they were not together. Some other ideas were also explored. At this point, he could take it further. He had enough ideas to work with. I still wanted to explore the “what next” after the “ what next”, but he said we could talk about that the next day.

These are some notes of a long conversation that I had with a client. At the end of the conversation he could already sense that he could move from being responsive to being pro-active, and how he could involve his team in this exploration.

Please let me know how you are working with your team to build and maintain a shared mental map of your situation and your options. Do not be shy, use the comments block below!

Thanks to Harald Jarche, who is always reminding his readers rather to share half-baked ideas than to try and perfect them. All the errors are my fault, not his.

A resource for leaders trying to unlock knowledge

This is one of my favourite topics to write, read and talk about. How knowledge can be leveraged to enable innovation in organisations. Even if it is tacit, or people don’t even know they posses valuable knowledge, leaders can create an environment where these ideas can be surfaced, explored and leveraged.

The pdf here contains three revised blog posts that I wrote on my ‘thinking out loud‘ blog site over the last two years. I’ve had the text edited and have made some improvements. Take a look and let me know if you find this useful.