Navigating Turbulence


It used to be that my Foresight work with clients focused on long horizons. We’d forecast scenarios in 5-, 10-, and 25-year scopes, sometimes we’d audaciously even go out to 50 years. But recently that changed.

We’ve been undergoing significant structural disruptions, like the COVID-19 pandemic, rising and shifting social movements, political change, and increasing adoption of exponential technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and Robotics. Amidst this, one theme has risen to the surface: turbulence is where we now live. Planning is no longer in our scope. We don’t know what the next month will look like, let alone 2021 or 2-5 years from now; we can only consider the variables. Across industries, my clients are asking the same question: How do we make sense of the world now and move forward?

Technology is progressive, economies are responsive, humans are reactive
The story of social change is one of reactivity and that is what we’re participating in now largely, it appears, because we aren’t wired to do it any other way. I believe we’re at the beginning of massive social revolution and this turbulence could be a decades-long trial for us. Our capacity to thrive depends on how well we can both anticipate and dance with the change as it emerges. As the turbulence continues, we will find ourselves in one or more of four phases of crisis response and recovery; being aware of where we are at any given moment offers both comfort and direction.

What’s asked of us right now, more than ever, is that we develop a true ability to stare into the face of uncertainty, and keep moving anyway. Each time we’re hit by a wave of crisis we need to recognize that just as it knocks us off our feet and there is tremendous loss, it is also a time when we get to review — out of necessity — our business model and the customer needs we’re addressing. We must always do this to innovate, but now we also must do it to persist.

The four phases of navigating turbulence
Turbulence was never (and is never) in our plan. Yet this reality is also the threshold for transformation. Right now we’re undertaking a Phoenix-rising act and it progresses through four natural stages of development.

Though the Four Phases are evolutionary, they are not linear. In fact, the uncertainty that is inherent to turbulence means that we must bounce with the bumps, often going through several rounds of a phase or of a cycle.

Triage: When our immediate needs are our only needs.
Our first phase is a shift from expansive growth to focused value for the people you serve — your team, your family, your customers. We do this in three ways:

1. Secure safety, health, assets
When we are rocked from the bottom, the very first thing we have to do is secure our safety. If our house is burning down, we go back in to retrieve the most important assets of our lives from which we can rebuild. The same is true for business. We are mightily focused on our safety, the health of our first circle (families, loved ones, employees, businesses, and customers), and the business assets that will allow us to move forward.

2. Create a command center
Each day or each hour, sometimes even minute to minute, we are evaluating what’s happening now, thinking about how we are going to mobilize, and determining how to make good decisions together.

3. Get perspective
To the best of our ability, we are assessing the immediate needs while looking up at the horizon to see where help is coming from or if there is clear metaphorical weather on the way. Constantly looking at now while looking ahead is critical to maintaining perspective in these moments.

Triage tells us where our attention needs to be; there is no arguing because there is urgency. The tricky part of triage is that we can get hyper-focused in that emergency state of mind because it feels necessary and, in its own limited way, productive. It takes a different mindset to shift into experimentation, which is often occurring side-by-side with triage. We are beginning to say, “We’ve secured what we can, and we are watching the horizon well enough that we can try a few things out.” Now what?

Experimentation: When we aren’t able to rest on what we’ve always done.
We know the world hasn’t stopped and at the same time, business-as-usual is utterly impossible. Everything is new so the primary capability we pull from is innovation: The only thing we can do is build new models to move our way forward. Adaptation and evolution are imperatives. We do this by:

1. Playing at the intersection of assets and needs, purpose and technology
We must do our best to consider our business from a fresh point of view. Who are our best clients and customers? If they were in the room, and we truly care for them, what would we want them to have and do that we uniquely can provide? What do we understand about our customers and what needs can we anticipate so we can be there to meet it? We may not have everything together yet, but we know it’s the right direction to be playing.

We must realize our purpose in helping to meet those needs and understand what technology will accomplish that, because into the gaps come new technologies. We might start to exercise new tools, or we might dig deep into the trenches of our own expertise and use it in new ways.

2. Being socially relevant
As we evolve, it’s important we are sensitive to the world as it’s changing. We must be alert not just to the organizational challenges and changes, but also to the cultural challenges and changes. What will play well to people’s hearts at this moment and what are humanity’s needs? Our job, as organizations, is to be part of that fabric, and we want to make sure that we have been sensitive to it and that the cultural aspects are part of our anticipation, as well.

3. Moving the horizon forward as soon as you’re able
It’s always important when doing strategy work that we understand what we have and where we are right now, and that we also, to the best of our ability, scan the horizon and scan to see where our customers, clients, and society are headed. The long-view and now-view have to be balanced.

Orientation: When we have a hunch and have the confidence to move on it.
In many ways, our ability to look up and down, in and out, is our most critical skill during turbulence. Being responsive requires bifocal seeing: magnification for seeing close, but also a lens for seeing into the distance and into other domains — lenses for doing environmental scans. You’re reading on both levels constantly because economics and politics are influencing things, and changes often come from social movements and other industries. This is a juicy phase with a lot of up and down, back and forth, as our adaption crystalizes.

What are we doing?

1. Sorting for successes and efficiencies, observe early trends and insights
As you’re experimenting, what are you learning; what are the early trends or insights that you’re getting? Certainly, we can learn from each other. Often the benchmarks we use as we respond are our industry peers — who is responding to what and how? I think this is also a time to be very curious about other industries. Everyone is going to be doing something new and new models will be unfolding across all businesses.

2. Establishing listening posts and scouting teams
Establishing listening posts helps us achieve reconnaissance-like measures. We will start to do more research where we have good hunches about where things are moving. We will dig into our own expertise, but let’s also engage with external expertise as needed. This is a time when we can’t possibly be equipped to know it all. Our listening and scouting should be about our customers’ and clients’ needs and how they’re evolving, and consider what we understand about the new direction.

3. Lengthening planning horizons and sharpening focus
As our planning horizons get a little bit longer, our focus should get sharper but not narrower. These are times when we get to become a little more trained in what real strategy looks like. What we’ll truly feel, sometimes uncomfortably, is that strategy is always a wide-view exercise. We’ll benefit from looking outside best practices, looking outside our industry, and instead looking for the horizons of how society is changing and the forces that are shaping it. This is strategy done well. Ideally, this strategic training gets embedded in the organization and means we get better as we move forward.

4. Seeing a new model and a new vision emerges
We might see new models arising from the experimental and orientation efforts. Very often this is because we are now integrating new technologies and new ways of producing and delivering our products and services, manufacturing, delivery, and so forth. This is adaption and innovation at work.

5. Adapting our behavioral and cultural perceptions of performance
We will need to address performance as we bust through our assumptions about “business as usual.” Performance is generally tied to metrics, but when everything is new, what metrics do you rely on? So, we must start to look for more qualitative measures around learning and growing in order to assess performance success. This is an important time for us to be an evolutionary culture, and we will have to back that up with how well we are tuned to doing that as an organization.

Scale: When we operationalize a new way of being.
Finally, at some point as we go, some things will be known enough to be scaled. We will get to a point at which we can operationalize some new parts of our business. We will gain the confidence to dispatch leadership from the war room and they will be able to oversee large initiatives. We will be taking on new things during these times and this aspect will require looking up and out at the horizon.

Yet that doesn’t mean we get to a point where things are calm and can say, “this is how things look now.” These four phases are “how things look.”

What have we learned?

1. Humility and vulnerability are real and valuable
As we navigate the phases and the questions and decisions they require, we will have had to be vulnerable. We will see that we are vulnerable and that our illusion of control is the most vulnerable of all. What we gain from this is a sense of humility that hopefully strengthens our commitment to learning, experimenting, and evolving elements of our responsiveness.

2. Hold tight to purpose, play loose with tactics
Through it, we find our way forward by holding tight to purpose, and these four phases bring to life what it really means to play with tactics. And if our organizations are to become adaptive, it’s because they’ve learned how to keep that at the center of everything.

© 2021 by Cecily Sommers. All rights reserved.


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