LOOKING AHEAD: THE PANDEMIC AND THE FUTURE OF WORK: PART I

i4cp Futurist Jay Jamrog on What He’s Watching Now and the Skills Leaders Need to Look Ahead

For many people, there’s a lingering sense of being blindsided by the COVID-19 outbreak—that somehow, we should have seen this coming. (Though, in fact, warnings have been sounded for some time.) 

Perhaps if we were public health professionals who spent our time studying such things, we might have been prepared. But leadership development in the business world doesn’t include training in reading crystal balls, tarot cards, or tea leaves. 

While we can’t predict the future, here at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) we have the next best thing—resident futurist Jay Jamrog. In this first of a two-part interview, Jay shares a few of the strategies he uses to focus forward, his thoughts on the future of work, and the skills leaders will need to drive post-pandemic business success. 

Jay, what are you keeping an eye on at present when you’re trying to imagine what the future might bring for organizations?  

Right now, I’m watching the pandemic to see how it will play out. Will we get a second wave because businesses have opened early and people aren’t following social distancing guidelines and wearing masks? Will we have adequate hospital space, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and people to care the ill? Will drug therapies or a vaccine be available to help reduce the death toll? There seems to be some progress there and that will make a big difference on the impact. 

A second wave would hit our economy hard. It will be tougher to recover and the effects will be more profound. So, at present, I am looking at a timeframe of six months to a year, watching projections about the pandemic and how well are we prepared for it—or not. There’s still a lot of uncertainty there.  

I’m also watching technology. During the first few months of the pandemic we had expanded interest and huge growth in technology. Not only in Zoom and telemedicine apps, but a big jump in general. That acceleration, with the continued influences of AI and machine learning, will have an impact on how we look at the future and what work is going to look like. 

Technology helps us gather data to create information needed to make better decisions it. It also has a tremendous way of helping us be more efficient. But where is effectiveness going to come from? It will take humans to process the information that technology provides and to make good decisions going forward. 

So even though technology is seeing rapid acceleration, humans will still be the critical decision-makers. What does that imply for business leaders and others when we think about what we need to be learning now? 

The human being’s role in the mix is important because the information we get by applying technology is only as good as the data that we put in. So, people must constantly monitor data inputs and ensure its integrity.  

On the back end, we’ll need to have the ability to look at the information we’re receiving and understand the stories that data is telling us. Then we can make better decisions. Data analysis skills and the ability to discern the stories underlying the data will be vital.   

Beyond that, leaders will need to know how to connect disparate bits of information. When data about the customer says one thing, data about the market says another, and information about what the competition is doing tells us something else, you have to digest that information and link it together to understand what it means for your business.  

It’s challenging to develop the skills needed to look at seemingly unrelated pieces of information and put them together to support strategizing and decision-making.  

Are there tools or strategies business leaders can leverage—things like scenario planning—to help them make sense of scattered data and what it means for future planning?  

Scenario planning is a tool I’ve taught for years, but it won’t help predict the future—you may write hundreds of scenarios and only one might come true. That has been the downfall of scenarios and the main reason businesspeople have not widely used them.  

What scenario planning does do is help you think about possibilities. When you consider what might occur and what that would mean for your business, it can help you develop agility and perhaps recognize and take advantage of opportunities faster than your competitors.  

When you think about developing the ability to put different pieces of information together (or the steps you need to gather data to write scenarios), what I suggest is that people work on cultivating an agile mindset. By an agile mindset, what I mean is the ability to sense trends and issues that are occurring both inside and outside your organization.   

But the future is never a linear projection of any trend that you are watching. There are always countertrends. So, when you look at trends and sense what is happening out there, you also have to consider what the countertrends are likely to be.  

So, build your ability to sense internally and externally where the movements—the trends—are. Consider what the countertrends might be. And then turn that sensing into insights by asking yourself: What does this mean for the business? What does it mean for HR? For other business functions? In other words, what are the possible implications of the different things you are watching?  

In addition to identifying trends and countertrends, it can be helpful to look at what is driving them. By doing that you can sometimes identify other trends or get additional bits of related information that help you begin to piece together real insights. Then of course the hardest part is to pull the trigger and turn those insights into action. 

So to develop an agile mindset, look at internal and external trends, identify their countertrends, consider what’s driving the trends, turn that into insights (what we used to call implications) and then determine the actions you are going to take.  

It sounds as if environmental scanningfollowing trends, countertrends, and drivers is an important activity. Should business leaders be doing that as a part of their information-gathering? 

Yes, or they can delegate it to others. Often, leaders designate appropriate people or business functions to follow specific trends and countertrends related to their areas of specialty. Then, those people are asked to present the trends, countertrends and drivers to senior leaders and have a discussion about the insights or implications. Then it’s the senior leader’s job to determine what, if any, action should be taken.   

Not only does that method keep environmental scanning responsibilities from weighing too heavily on any one person, it also has the secondary benefit of helping those to whom work has been delegated develop agile mindsets, too. It’s a great way to encourage action learning. 

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In Part II of the interview with i4cp futurist Jay Jamrog, to be published on June 30, read about pandemic effects on organizational cultures, projected shifts in work and the surprising role businesses could fill in the future.