Moving beyond lockdown doesn’t mean we are past disruption and unpredictability. James Payne, Associate Director of Transformational Strategies at Forum for the Future, weighs in on how businesses can better prepare for a turbulent decade.

As we entered 2020, many voices, including our own, were predicting that this would be a decade of disruption; not just because of rapid shifts in our operating context, but also because of the radical change needed to achieve the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and shift to a less than 1.5 degree trajectory on climate change.

At Forum for the Future, we’ve spent almost 25 years helping leading organisations, including Unilever, Burberry and Marks & Spencer, to forward-plan their strategies and navigate their way towards more resilient, future-fit governance models. Part of this process includes immersing ourselves in scenarios of what our world could look like in 10 or 20 years. Immense and disruptive change has always been part of the picture. But predicting it is very different from living its reality, as we have been in the last six to eight months, depending on which country we’re in.

In many ways, the spread of COVID-19 was an unpredictable event. But it has brought into sharp focus many issues that business leaders have so far seen as remote or abstract: the need to making decision-making more agile to adapt quickly to change; the need to future-proof supply chains against disruptive events – particularly those resulting from climate change and environmental deterioration; and the need to prioritise human and planetary health, which are intricately linked with organisational health.

These considerations are now at the top of every forward-thinking business leader’s agenda. What steps can companies take now to ensure they are stronger and better prepared for the future? How can you ensure that your organisation is better able to manage shocks and prepare for critical challenges lying ahead?

Envisioning the future

Uniting behind a shared vision of the future can help organisations – and indeed, entire supply chains – to successfully navigate tough times. This is particularly true now, when companies are deciding on necessary sacrifices today, for tomorrow. But it is vital that businesses think beyond short term mitigation towards longer-term transformation.

How can you future-proof your company and your industry for a net-zero economy? The use of futures tools – exploring plausible, probable and preferred future scenarios based on trends emerging today, such as Aditya Birla Group’s Climate Scenarios – can help you strategise and prepare more effectively for the sudden changes we will be facing in the exponential decade ahead.

Building adaptability into your operational model

There are clear signals that COVID-19 will not be the only highly disruptive event we will face in the 2020s. Right now, many organisations have been forced into unprecedented flexibility – on supply chains, product delivery and ways of working. This is certainly stressful and often very difficult, but if you are able to integrate greater adaptability into your culture and design it into your planning processes, it will make your organisation stronger and more resilient.

Embracing adaptive pathways and rapid prototyping and learning, as opposed to static roadmaps or classical strategy-setting approaches, will ensure that you are better prepared for the exigencies of an increasingly complex and uncertain world.

Getting closer to your operating context

COVID-19 has thrown into relief how interconnected all industries are – from finance and retail, to food and travel – and how they are intertwined with community welfare and individual health. Changes in one can directly impact another.

To ensure business survival, directors are being forced to engage more closely with the systems their companies interact with. But they need to go further, by using more collaboration, partnerships and advocacy to expand their sphere of influence into a much broader sphere of concern.

This approach enabled Unilever’s COVID-19 response to be both rapid and deep across its value chain. Ultimately, it is about seeing the operating context of your business in a completely different way; understanding it as sitting within a complex system and learning new capabilities that allow you to influence it effectively.

As we face down this exponential decade, truly visionary leaders must be able to adapt quickly to immediate challenges, whilst holding the big-picture operating context – and the wider horizon for the organisation – in view. It will be difficult to steer through today’s uncharted roads, let alone post-COVID times. But to thrive, we must take lessons from the COVID-19 response and see this as a hard-won opportunity to build greater business resilience and robustness for the journey ahead.

If you found this article interesting, check out also our 'Corporate Leadership in the Time of Corona' Series:

The COVID-19 crisis is having a devastating impact – both in terms of lives lost and economic disruption. At Forum for the Future, we believe that it would be tragic to go back to yesterday’s “business-as-usual”; moments of radical disruption like this provide unprecedented opportunities to reinvent the future. We are therefore calling for business, governments, civil society and communities to seize this moment in helping to deliver a more just, sustainable and resilient world.

Visit our COVID-19 content hub to find out more.

Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash