During chaos and uncertainty, it can be challenging to focus our nervous energy in productive ways. As a futurist who helps companies anticipate and navigate crises like this, I’m encouraging fellow leaders and global clients to engage their entire orgs in a set of strategic exercises.
The three activities below not only unite people around a shared cause, they can impart a sense of control and even optimism during tough times. Logistically, each exercise can be facilitated remotely by leaders or your L&D unit on a platform like Zoom, which enables live polling.
1. Engage in worst-case-scenario-planning
Start by remotely gathering people from across your entire company and presenting this challenge: “Knowing what we do about the coronavirus, what are the factors that could put us out of business this year?” When HBO did a similar exercise not long ago, it generated three pages of tactics. An American mining company used it to identify additional market threats. A city council in Texas has used it to steel itself against community risks.
In your own org, direct people to brainstorm all the ways that coronavirus could render the business obsolete — and have them write each tactic on a sticky note. Examples could be anything from “all of our locations must remain shuttered for six months” to “there are no orders for employees to fulfill.”
One by one, ask each participant to reveal their sticky note on camera and classify it as a big or small threat, and whether they think it presents an easy or hard problem to solve. As a group, take a vote on your top three threats. Be sure to note if your biggest threats are all clustered in one area — that’s indicative of a particularly vulnerable area needing immediate attention.
From here, ask participants for ideas on how they’d prevent those three threats from happening? A real-world response to shuttered locations is Universal Pictures’ decision this week to shift its in-theatre films to on-demand streaming via Comcast, Sky, Apple and Amazon. Likewise, a path for retaining employees amid a lack of fulfillment orders is luxury-goods maker LVMH converting its perfume factories into manufacturers of hand-sanitizer.
As you’ll witness, this phase of the exercise is when your threats find creative and innovative solutions. The experience can also serve to empower otherwise dispirited employees — and help leaders tackle weaknesses and future-proof their business as quickly as possible.
2. Ask disruptive questions
Have you heard about the high-end Seattle restaurant that morphed overnight into comfort food delivered by its staff? Or the auto manufacturers exploring medical-equipment production in their shuttered factories? The pivots that we’re witnessing amid the coronavirus crisis are a result of agile, quick-acting and prepared leaders.
If you’re searching for a path through this shifting economic climate, schedule a no-holds-barred session with your remote team. In advance, let invitees know that you’ll be collectively generating a list of disruptive questions to ask customers, scientists, kids, or other audiences who could provide insights amid this crisis.
What exactly constitutes a Disruptive Question? Well, it’s a question that’s provocative. And it takes a positive or negative approach to an issue. It’s also framed as an open-ended question. Examples of Disruptive Questions recently generated by our clients include:
· How can we make our product relevant in a shelter-in-place economy?
· How can our service be turned into a physical product? How can our physical product be turned into a service?
· How might we use unpleasant experiences to create pleasant ones?
· How can we make your remote job easier?
· What can we offer for free that no one else will?
· What are the big shifts that our industry is undergoing? Which related industries should we also be tracking?
Asking better questions helps you solve dire issues and even find opportunities to disrupt your industry for the better. It also builds your team’s ability to ask unconventional audiences the kind of questions that lead to problem-solving and innovation.
3. Activate forward-thinking
M.I.T. neuroscientists have found that our brains can process images in as little as 13 milliseconds — that’s faster than reading a sentence. Our brains are wired to absorb visual information, yet as we get older, we’re taught to “use our words.” But when a disruptive idea is so unfamiliar that people have no context for it, how do you use words to explain it? When words fall short — as they often do in times of crisis — a visual approach can help you more fully develop your idea — and more easily connect the dots for others.
It all starts with conducting a group visualization exercise remotely. Imagine that you’re 10 years in the future, and your organization is a leading innovator. You’ve achieved a position of dominance in your industry. How did you get here? As in, what specific decisions and actions got you to this level of success? To focus your thoughts, capture your answers to the following:
· What new things will our business or team be selling or doing?
· What changes will enable us to sell and do those things?
· What skills will we need to be successful?
· What will be different about the structure of our business?
Now, start drawing your vision of the company ten years from now, using your responses as a guide. Maybe your answers included things like “all employees work remotely” or “A.I. will have a much larger role in operations” or “we will only sell our products through a subscription model.” Whatever your vision, convey it through a mix of words and images and then reveal it to the group on camera.
As each team member shares their drawing, take note if any team members’ sketches are really similar. Ditto if everyone drew something different. Generate a discussion around the implications of having aligned or differing visions for the company. Then decide, as a group, which drawings represents the ideal version of your company’s future. Once you’ve narrowed it down to one or two drawings, identify what you can act on today to start fulfilling your vision of tomorrow.
Visualizing your company’s innovation success in the future is essential to achieving it. Use the actionable ideas from this visualization exercise to strategize, align and implement a ten-year plan for innovation success.
This is an unprecedented moment to be operating a business — and unprecedented times require new approaches and agility. Dedicating time to think proactively and creatively provides a productive outlet for the uncertainty so many of us are experiencing. We’re all in this together, and my hope is that the three techniques above help you navigate this crisis and boost team morale.