July 02, 2020

2023 – Will you be ready?

Managing Principal Gerard Smith answers questions from Kevin McDermott

Q: What are these scenario “capsules” FSG has created?

GS: Well, scenario planning is a good way to plan when there is uncertainty.  Generally, the further ahead you need to plan the greater the uncertainty. Scenarios deal with that by bringing to life different ways in which the future might unfold – which is why we also refer to them as “alternative futures”. The coronavirus has brought uncertainty into the present and even the immediate short term has become foggy.  We knew it would be useful to adapt the thinking to a much shorter time frame – to look at the different ways the world – particularly the US – might change by, say, 2023

Q: But why “capsules”?

GS: Short answer is because they’re not scenarios – which are rich, vividly rendered descriptions of alternative future ‘worlds’. These capsules are very abbreviated - we sometimes refer to them as Hollywood pitches – deliberately short but with enough in them to get you thinking. It’s impossible to consider every possible future – even when you’ve narrowed down your scenario ‘space’ by deciding on the big factors that will matter most. Scenario planning always involves a set of scenarios, so you have to decide on the set that you will explore in detail. To help you decide, we write these ‘capsule’ summaries. You’re not deciding which ones are most likely, or which ones you hope will come true.  You’re choosing a set that among them will cover as wide a range as possible.

Q: How do capsules differ from conventional FSG scenarios? How will these capsules support the distinctive FSG approach of “alternative futures”?

GS: Wow, you’ve packed a lot in there. Let me try and break that down. Usually scenarios are custom-made – we’ll develop scenarios, with the client, that address factors that have a bearing on that client’s operating environment. In this case, we’ve already done a lot of the work, so as well as describing short-term futures these are ready-to-go platforms that can be used as a foundation for any organization that might want to build on them to address issues of concern to their sector. An analogy would be with the modular platforms car manufacturers use. They develop a flexible chassis using standard components, which allows for a wide variety of different models and even types - cars, SUVs, crossovers - to be built on top. This creates savings and provides efficiencies and flexibility.

Q: Any sectors in particular?

GS: A few spring to mind as obvious candidates: education, health care, transport, retail, sports and live events. But all organizations in every sector are being changed. The first layer of change has either already happened or at least been triggered. But everything else will be on top of that.

Q: Give me a couple of examples of how clients might apply these scenario capsules.

GS: One application could be just to stress test existing strategies. It would require some work to explore the different ways the client’s operating environment would be changed in each of the selected capsules, but existing plans and strategies can then be evaluated – and altered, or even jettisoned. The process of considering the operating environment might itself provide insight suggesting more profound change.  And that might require a different business model, or the development of new products and services, different skill sets, staff requirements.

Q: Talk more broadly about challenges organizations face right now in thinking beyond the present emergency to a time two years, three years out in time.

GS:  Hmm - Where to begin. The amount of change and the speed with which this crisis has happened is unprecedented. It’s disrupted existing operations and distracted everybody. The meta-question on everybody’s mind is how much of the change we’ve seen will persist after the emergency subsides, assuming it does.  There will be economic effects for sure.  But will mindsets be different?  Will this crisis be carried in memory long after the immediate risks are gone? We’ve seen, for example, how the US birth rate fell steadily after 2008, when the last recession hit, even though until the pandemic, most economic indices rose steadily. That says a lot about generational expectations of the future. A lot of those people might be feeling vindicated right now.

Q: Speaking of generational expectations, how do the scenario capsules help us think about the long-term meaning of the social unrest that erupted in the United States this spring?

GS: It’s a huge thing in its own right which FSG has addressed elsewhere. But it’s impossible to detach from the post-pandemic world, and we have considered some possible implications in each of the capsules. There is a strange tension between them though. Covid is something everyone wants to go away, whereas attention to the racial inequity underlying the protests is something most hope won’t go away. It’s interesting that protests erupted globally, which says something about America’s influence in the world, particularly among young people. But more directly to your question - there is also plenty of evidence that the generational divide in American politics is unprecedented. Millennials are significantly more left-leaning than older cohorts were at the same age. And given that they are a significantly larger cohort than those born later, and that distinct political leanings are maintained over a lifetime, they have the potential to alter the course of American politics for some time.

Q: Anything you would like to add here?

GS: I’ve always liked to consider the preponderance of certain words as an indicator of thinking.  There are two that come to mind here. They are ‘pivot’ and ‘agile’. I checked on an online database and, sure enough, both words have been used more than twice as much since the beginning of this year compared with the same period a year ago. But that they’ve become clichés is more than just fashion.  It reflects the pace of change, the universal uncertainty, and the required response.  And that response is to engage in iterative agile problem-solving, and non-conventional thinking. Scenario planning would be a great start.


Comments  | 

Stephen Wehrenberg
You say "It’s interesting that protests erupted globally, which says something about America’s influence in the world, particularly among young people." With respect to racial inequality, and racism in general, I suggest it says something about the state of the world. Tribalism is rampant. If you aren't part of my tribe you are less a person. I submit that youngsters are getting sick and tired of that kind of thinking. Most of the young people I know value the concept of a greater "we" over mere tribalism and "me." Bless their hearts.
Thanks for your comment Steve. I think you are right about young people and their attitudes. There are plenty of studies that bear this out. And as we say in the post, we know that political leanings - and presumably the beliefs and attitudes that underpin them - are maintained over a lifetime. So it seems likely that we shall see the slow erosion of tribalism and its toxic expression.