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Where to Begin?

It is often said that it takes 21 days to break a habit, so the opportunity already exists, have broken with elements of the past, to establish a positive new normal.  With more than 10 weeks of lockdown in hand, many habits may already be broken but, if one hankers for the world that was, it may only take 21 days to re-establish old habits.  Think of the potential in designing the “new normal” – we can select from the elements of previous practice that are still workable and incorporate innovations to arrive at a great place on the spectrum between ‘old normal’ and a wide range of radically different/divergent possible futures. 


Scenario Planning

First and foremost, it is worthwhile to recognise that Covid will not be the last pandemic (or other global shock) to be a threat; we will likely find emergency measures periodically reintroduced to combat subsequent outbreaks and there will be new pandemic diseases (or other disruptions) in the future.  Disruption is an inevitability [1] that we need to learn how to manage better. 


Scenario planning as a technique offers by far the best set of tools for anticipating problems and working up solutions.  Case studies in this domain are legion, but what is striking is that by addressing biases, including over-confidence and a tendency to look for confirming evidence (cognitive dissonance), organisations that leverage scenario planning will find that not only is their ability to anticipate and weather future crises dramatically improved, they will also have a much better grasp of factors hitherto overlooked or undervalued. 


Crises are a poor point at which to manage strategically and are a dangerous way to manage change, but they are great teachers; controversial and difficult decisions suddenly become easy and are taken rapidly by force of circumstance.  While this is often acceptable only in the short-term and has risks in disempowering people that can undermine implementation, the crisis unlocks previously taboo topics.  Cashflows and surpluses so often dismissed as merely the concern of the Finance Director, suddenly assume a much more pressing relevance; they always were relevant and essential: how much easier would a crisis be to manage if underlying inefficiencies had been tackled earlier and the cash savings reserved for the proverbial rainy day?  A critical challenge in scenario planning is to look closely at all the ways in which the organisation can and does deploy its resources.  As a result, some inefficiencies, tolerable on a ‘business as usual’ basis, look less than wise and much more like costly extravagances.


The Timeless Questions

Second, this is a long road and it is worthwhile to begin with clarity of purpose:

  • Why does the organisation exist?

  • Who is it for?  Who does it serve?  What are their needs in a post-Covid world (and have these changed as a result of Covid)?

  • Who values that service enough to want to see it continue and be sustained?


From the answers, flow the essential components of a new operating model.  However, it is essential that the organisation works rigorously to determine how its core market has been affected by the virus and whether its needs have fundamentally changed and in what ways.  It may, of course, either have ceased to be a viable market or changed so radically as to be unrecognisable as the same core market.  For now, we will work on the principles that (a) a clear need exists (purpose/source of benefit/value), (b) a constituency or market can be identified as having that need (one or more segments of the market) and (c) that the constituency recognises the value associated with that need and is willing and able to meet the cost. Accordingly, there is a reasonable basis to expect a sustainable operating model [2] can be designed.

Engagement and Fair Process

Directive leadership and to some extent diktats have dominated the last few months.  Normal rules of governance and decision-making have been suspended during the crisis.  This is fair, reasonable and accepted to a large extent, but it cannot be a basis for any acceptable new normal.  Like a parent that reacts to a child in danger, the short-term urgency loses impact if it is sustained overlong.  A good framework for considering the new normal is Chan Kim and Mauborgne’s Concept of Fair Process [3]Over time, engagement and cooperation are critical to improving performance and the traditional/directive approach singularly fails to match the performance levels that can be achieved by leveraging discretionary effort from colleagues in an inter-dependent framework rather than in a command and control structure. 


The first and most practical step, therefore, is to engage staff and stakeholders in a structured conversation about:

  • the timeless questions of the organisation’s purpose and its constituencies;

  • the direct and lasting impacts of Covid;

  • the need for resilience to weather future storms; and

  • what a ‘better than before’ outcome would look like.


Fair process is not only the ‘right thing’ to do, it is a critically important element of exercising the organisation’s duty of care towards its people.  Crises require swift, decisive action but the lack of control felt by those of us who are being acted upon swiftly and decisively by our leaders is a further stressor at a time of great uncertainty, anxiety and fear.  We therefore owe it to our people to engage them in a process which is genuinely fair and inclusive. 


This is not to obviate the need for direction and leadership, but it is to recognise that directive/dictatorial leadership is not the only viable model, even in a crisis.  Our people conduct themselves with great professionalism and social responsibility, both as a general rule and particularly during the crisis.  They therefore deserve a place in the discussion of what comes next.  This is especially true given the scale and scope of change that needs to be envisaged, anticipated and delivered.  Finding the bandwidth for such conversations may be challenging but the alternatives are all sub-optimal and there is too much at stake to neglect this critical element.


The Core Challenges

We anticipate issues in three key areas of organisational life:

  • Capacity planning and designing the student/customer experience;

  • Supporting our staff in diverse ways of working;

  • Leveraging technology.


What will it mean to live with social distancing for a sustained period of time?  Capacity will be radically altered in a range of settings from education to hospitality.  Read our thoughts on the New Normal Physical Experience and the need for imaginative capacity planning.


What will it mean for our working lives?  Read our thoughts on accommodating different ways of working and looking after your people wherever and however they work.


With a greater emphasis on technology, we can no longer afford high profile IT project fiascos and systems and experiences which fail to match expectations and deliver a return on investment.  Read our thoughts on why radically re-engineering processes is a critical step in designing meaningful new student/customer experiences



[1] Although it is comfortable to think that the future once looked eminently predictable, the cold truth is that it was never thus, uncertainty was the old normal every bit as much as the new normal; even if many of us periodically, and for sustained periods, lost sight of that fact. 

[2] We define a sustainable operating model as one in which an investment will lead to a return and which can be maintained over time from revenues.  Excessive borrowing and reliance on external funding are not the hallmarks of a sustainable operating model.  We believe this fundamentally applies to any organisation which produces a benefit for others; our definition presupposes an inter-dependency of needs/expectations.  We use the term operating model to capture the combination of market requirements and operations resource decisions which have to be taken to fulfil the needs of customers, clients and stakeholders.

[3] W Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy, Harvard Business Review July-August 1997. P65