One of the challenges of facilitating a scenario planning workshop is getting participants to abandon their assumptions based on “today” and to imagine a substantially different “tomorrow.” The Covid-19 pandemic has likely made that challenge a bit easier, since what we would consider “today” is actually “yesterday.” In fact, the new challenge is defining what “today” even looks like, much less imagining “tomorrow.” Make sense? Confuddling or not, we should be imagining and planning for that tomorrow with scenario planning rigor in order to survive on the other side of this event. How do we do that, though, when we are still struggling with how to get through today?
It reminds me of how the Incident Command System (ICS) approaches incident response. One of the fundamental principles of ICS is to get ahead of the incident. While responders are fighting the “fire” on the ground, command is working to build the plan for the next operational period (next 12 hours, next day, etc.). Working on both “today” and “tomorrow” at the same time does not come easy and takes practice, but otherwise we are executing tactics without strategy, something Sun Tsu called “the noise before defeat.”
Those emergency responders have an ace up their sleeve, however. Well before the fire, or oil spill, or hurricane, or whatever the incident de jour may be, full-time planners worked for months, maybe years, to build a plan to get the responders through that first few hours or day of the incident while the command puts together what to do next. The CDC and public health entities presumably have plans to manage the opening stages of a pandemic (right?), but as a colleague pointed out to me, the rest of us do not: the small business, the corporation, the bank, local governments, or even, as we have discovered, the federal government.
So, command is now waist deep in the water along with the responders, sandbagging critical areas and placing families and soggy puppies into the boat to float them to safety. Very few are able to think about what to do when the flood waters recede, or especially what happens if they never do. Hundreds of thousands of years of sapient evolution have made us this way.
But failing to think beyond the immediate crisis leaves us unnecessarily vulnerable. We have to find a way to manage today AND plan for tomorrow, lest our efforts become the noise before defeat.