“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose.”Ecclesiastes
One of the most important ways that people make sense of their lives is through periodization. We know when different events are supposed to occur: Spring Cleaning. No chocolate before noon. Annual planning. Fiftieth Anniversary.
The division of our activities into different periods of time provides not only order, but also meaning. Timed events solidify and convey deeply-held assumptions about how the world works and our proper roles within it.
The scope of the disruption caused by the Coronavirus pandemic has pitched these calendars—and the assumptions that underwrite them—into disarray. It is difficult to periodize planning in these circumstances.
What data should we draw on to tell us when to plan next steps? What do we call the period we are in now, and when does it end? Will we later resume our existing planning cycles, or have the assumptions that drove them been too deeply undermined?
The Uses of Periodization for Planning
Because periodization is so important to sense-making, it is a good place to begin working through the rubble of expectations, and rebuild.
There are at least three ways that periodizing within your organization now helps you: with sense-making, planning, and building resilience.
To be clear, this does not mean artificially assigning calendar dates to events that are contingent on knowledge that does exist, such as when a vaccine will appear.
It does mean beginning to divide the near- and medium-term future into distinct periods defined by specific points of reference. These are matters of judgment and consensus as much as information.
Having the conversation about what will indicate a transition point is likely to be valuable in itself. It will bring to the surface different ideas about how to measure progress on the road ahead.
The Four Seasons of COVID-19: Emergency, Limbo, Transformation, and New Equilibrium
At Prescient, we are sharing a framework that divides the next few years into four seasons: Emergency, Limbo, Transformation and New Equilibrium.
We are calling these “seasons” because they have a naturally emergent quality, just as the natural seasons do. We know that the season of Spring has arrived by more than a date on a calendar. There are also objective measurements such as temperature. We may also develop consensus around shared reference points: a smell of earth in the air, new clothes, or rituals related to renewal and rebirth.
In the same vein, no one has the authority to say exactly when different transitions related to a pandemic have occurred. It is likely to be a matter of consensus–a feeling in the air–as much as it is of hard markers such as economic activity levels.
Season 1: Emergency
Emergencies are by definition dangerous, unexpected events requiring immediate action to end or reverse.
The season of emergency is the that most of the world entered several months ago.
Emergency requires a focus on tactical issues. This period is characterized by lockdowns, a rise in absolute numbers of infections, threatened healthcare systems and the economic effects of the lockdown itself.
In this space, responsiveness to present needs is all-consuming, and tactical challenges take precedent. The goal of actions in this season is to end it, even at a high cost.
The Emergency period ends when the public health crisis is over, making thoughts about trade-off with economic needs palatable. The largest determinants of when an emergency ends is related to the end of the public health crisis.
There are already a number of existing benchmarks that have been widely circulated. They relate to ensuring that the health system can function on a non-emergency basis. Areas such as testing, contact tracing, social measures, and public hygiene are on the list.
Lockdown by itself is not a good proxy for declaring the end of the emergency phase. Public health officials have made it clear that imposing new stay-at-home measures to control outbreaks could be necessary.
Season 2: Limbo
This is the season into which much of the world is now passing. Limbo is characterized by a period of waiting for answers to key questions. These questions national and sub-national governments to weigh in.
Two dominant themes, public health and economics, have emerged as the critical levers of what the foreseeable future will look like. Governments are currently testing different approaches to achieve a balance that permits the greatest level of economic and social activity with the lowest possible level of COVID-19 transmission.
There are many variables and meaningful differences in expert opinion which go into the balancing decision. These include infection levels; knowing how immunity is achieved; the capacity to perform tests; contact tracing for infected individuals; hospital capacity; judgments about acceptable thresholds of infection, and the health and economic trade-offs of suspending normal activities.
Different countries are taking different steps as of the end of April: From Beijing, where students are returning to school and signs of normal activity are returning; to Iran, where the country will be be different zones according to the length of time that it has gone without new infections; to Australia, Italy, and the United States, where there are various plans for reopening the country in May. (Wall Street Journal, paywall)
A second arena in which a stable picture has not yet emerged is the world financial system. The variables that may help bring the economic picture into greater focus include expert consensus around 2020 growth levels; the length of recession; the necessity of future central bank interventions, and the speed and quality of the ultimate recovery.
Season 3: Transformation
When the social and economic situation becomes more firmly understood, a new transitional phase will be ushered in.
We call this the season of Transformation to frame it as an opportunity to prepare organizations for future uncertainty.
While the window is open, organizational leaders have the opportunity to consider what the pandemic revealed about their organizations. They have the possibility of setting a vision that aligns with the new emerging reality.
New layers of complexity will appear. Issues that fell by the wayside during the height of the pandemic will resurface: from the changing technological landscape to climate change to shifting market issues.
There will also be new insights to consider. The pandemic has revealed much about the macro-systems that shape political, health, finance, and education organizations/systems, among others. People may look at theses with new wisdom to ask what values, engagements, forms of influence are important to them.
How to Use the Season of Transformation to Build Resilience
The strange gift of crisis is that it offers an opportunity to look at events through a new lens. During the season of transformation, smart organizations will use that lens to gain insight into what happened. When the external environment changes, how can old ways of doing business transform to meet them?
There are two steps you can take to trigger transformative thinking. First, conduct an “after-action review” of how your organization responded and how it could improve in the future. These are the kinds of questions that you might ask within your organization during the Season of Transformation:
- What continued to go well within your organization?
- Did surprising sources of strength emerge?
- How did your values help you get through crisis?
- Where did fragility appear? What shattered on contact with emergency?
- What possibilities surfaced as a result of “making do”? Which are worth sustaining?
- How do you plan to prepare for the uncertainties of the future and build them into your organization starting now?
Second, you can explore how your assumptions about the operating environment have changed. (See the image below for ideas.)
Season 4: New Equilibrium
As difficult as it is to imagine now, a season of New Equilibrium will arrive. A vaccine or new interventions will be invented. And new events will take up our energy.
No one knows what this equilibrium will look like. But what it does look like will stem from how people interpret what happened, and what they do now to build stronger companies, communities and governments.
The New Equilibrium, in other words, is now more than ever in your hands.