Last week, Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec told a CNBC interviewer that now that we’re in a pandemic, his sole goal for his business portfolio of startups is subsistence; he’s operating them on a day-to-day basis, doing whatever he must to keep their doors open. His long-term planning horizon, he said, has shrunk from years to one week.
While crisis-management requires any business to focus on the immediate-term, leaders should simultaneously carve out some capacity for visionary thinking. No one knows how and when this crisis will end; what we do know is that when it does, we won’t be magically transported back to the status quo ante. Our world is changing in fundamental ways, and the assumptions that underlie our business strategies need to be re-examined. When we come out on the other end of this catastrophe, it’s likely you will find that the field that you used to play on is different. The truth is, you may have to learn to play a different game.
Products and services that have existed for decades are suddenly irrelevant; business models that seemed cutting-edge a month ago feel like they’ve been with us always. Telemedicine, for example, and telecommuting went from 0 to 60 in seconds and neither will go away. The people who design conferencing software will find many opportunities.
Of course, nobody has a crystal ball; if such a thing existed, we wouldn’t be in the fix that we’re in. But if you can’t predict what’s coming with perfect certainty, you can anticipate the major fault lines in and around your business, the threats and opportunities they present, and develop a vision for the future of your enterprise. The process should look something like this:
- Envision what your business environment will look like in 12-18 months and how well you fit into it, focusing on your customers and their needs; your product; and your overall capabilities
- Specify the future changes you might make to ensure that your business thrives and then enact them in the present, setting explicit benchmarks and milestones for yourself. It’s important that you plan this backwards, asking yourself what you should have accomplished at 14 months, then 10 months, 6 months, and 2 months, lest you allow your present state to distort your view of the future.
- Decide which investments you should prioritize, and then do so
- Prepare to measure and monitor, given the rapidly changing environment as you approach each milestone
- Be ready to make adjustments to your vision as you progress and learn
These steps allow you to develop a vision that is imbued with a sense of purpose, and then reverse engineer it into a deliberate strategy.
The pandemic is as big a disruption as most of us have ever lived through. Surviving it will require luck, to be sure, but also a long view—and the patience and discipline to develop and stick to a strategy.
Mark W. Johnson cofounded the strategy and innovation management consultancy Innosight with Clayton M. Christensen in 2000. Josh Suskewicz is a partner at Innosight, where he specializes in healthcare and cleantech. Their new book is Lead From the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth (Harvard Business Review Press, April 14, 2020)