As we are nearing the end of 2020, this 17th century adage has been our moto throughout this unprecedented year. What has it meant for us and more critically what does it mean for the future now that vaccines are in sight and a glimpse of a post Covid-19 world is within our grasp?
The dichotomy of this universally used saying is obvious: on the one end we are driven by necessary optimism to find the motivation to keep going and on the other, we know that planning for the worst is the sensible thing to do to survive and thrive beyond adversity of any kind. Whilst the former typically comes naturally, the latter often requires deliberate efforts.
So, to be more resilient both on a personal and organisational level, how can we balance this optimism bias – a cognitive bias that causes someone to believe that they themselves are less likely to experience a negative event – with the need to continuously develop worst-case scenarios?
A crisis can be compared to a dark tunnel: it’s pitch black, we don’t see anything, we don’t know how long it is, whether it is straight or has bends and whether anything is coming at us at full speed. The only thing we know from having gone through tunnels before is that there is usually light at the end.
No crisis manifests itself the same way as another, and no-one can predict exactly how long a crisis will last, how it will twist and turn, nor how it will end up. What is always almost certain, though, is that the situation typically gets worse before it gets better.
Causing extreme uncertainty, defined in terms of novelty, magnitude, duration, and the rapid pace of change, and existential issues, the Covid-19 tunnel has been endless and arduous in multiple ways.
First, second and third waves of infections have been tempered by short-lived hopeful periods during which, despite scientific predictions, collective delusion and denial prevailed. Each time, we expressed a sigh of relief “now we’ve turned the corner, now we’ve passed the worse”. And yet it has gotten worse and will likely keep getting worse for some time before mass vaccination is implemented.
Whilst vaccines are now within reach, a “return to normal business” could take longer. Now is the time to operationalise different scenario permutations by developing mitigation plans.
Living with Covid-19, we have had to cope with uncertainty on a scale that few were prepared for and adjust to massive changes. On a personal level, shifting our mind-set to focus on the moment as well as utilising a range of tools, techniques and new endeavours ,have proven invaluable to keep us motivated and looking ahead.
This approach is equally applicable to the business and professional spheres. “Hope For the Best And Plan For The Worst” has been preached by practitioners in the field of crisis management forever. However, rarely, if at all, is this sound advice actually put in practice by organisations for the simple reason that it requires a huge effort, mental agility, training and practice to keep thinking of the worst in an already bad and deteriorating situation.
The pandemic is the perfect example: even though scientists have forecast recurring waves of infection, worst case-scenarios planning has not been used enough to boost resilience during this period. Crisis fatigue is the common explanation, and while fatigue is real, it is no excuse for complacency.
Planning for the worst is exactly what crisis teams and their leaders should be doing in the midst of chaos when little can be done to control or mitigate the events.
Emerging from the 1970’s oil crisis, scenario planning is a critical skill that empowers organisations to develop a range of strategic responses corresponding to a number of a scenario permutations. It’s a much-needed crisis leadership competency which helps organisations weather escalations and/or deteriorations.
In any crisis, however long it lasts, there are periods of intense activity with information overload within very short time spans, and others with little change nor update and senseless waiting.
This is exactly why and when crisis teams must develop worst-case scenarios (and you can find our CrisisScenarios ready-to-deliver here), build response plans, think freely and generate solution-focused approaches. Continuously considering how much worse the situation can get, far from being demoralising, actually encourages teams to be proactive and often helps uncover opportunities.
“The great virtue of the scenario approach to planning,” wrote Charles Hill and Gareth Jones in their book Strategic Management Theory: An Integrated Approach,
“is that it can push managers to think outside the box, to anticipate what they might have to do in different situations, and to learn that the world is a complex and unpredictable place that places a premium on flexibility, rather than on inflexible plans based on assumptions about the future that may turn out to be incorrect.”
We can now finally see some light at the end of the Covid tunnel. Optimal crisis resilience is founded on the fragile equilibrium between risk and opportunity. It’s a balancing act between optimism and worst-case scenario planning, it’s about cultivating the right mind set to always be ready for the worst while hoping for the best.
Taking the lead in this process and applying contingency measures for each of your key activity areas during periods of extreme uncertainty, will help your organisation navigate a crisis like Covid-19 and emerge in a stronger place than where it started.
Year-end holidays are around the corner and while they may not be as festive as we had hoped, it is time to take a break and a breath so that we are ready to embrace 2021 with sound planning and enhanced resilience.
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Caroline Sapriel is Managing Partner of CS&A International. With over 25 years experience in risk and crisis management, she is recognized as a leader in her profession and acknowledged for her ability to provide customized, results-driven counsel and training at the highest level.