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How to Map Your Business’s Path to the Next Normal

Peter Schwartz, Salesforce Chief Futurist, has been speaking with ANZ business leaders about what we can all expect as we move through and beyond this pandemic, and how they can make the best decisions at each stage. Here, Peter shares with us his three-stage map to ‘the next normal’.

There is so much changing right now, constantly. What I talked about last week, we’ve moved on from this week – we’re learning more as we go. We’re adding to and deepening our thinking, and that’s going to keep happening. There’s so much uncertainty and, two weeks from now, it’ll be new again. 

The leaders I have been speaking with in Australia and New Zealand are having to constantly adapt. But one constant I saw was that they knew they needed to have their businesses’ journeys through this crisis and to the next normal mapped out. 

This is the same with leaders I’m speaking with the world over. The current reality they are experiencing likely depends on where they, their workforces, their suppliers and their customers are based – but their current concern is consistently the path through and out of this. 

The fact there’s such a variation in scenarios and approaches based on location creates problems, particularly for those global businesses who have to manage workers in multiple countries. 

Back in April – which seems a lifetime ago now – I worked with Deloitte to develop a guide to help leaders assess the relative likelihood of four post-pandemic scenarios and their preparedness for each. None are optimistic, but some are less devastating than others. But we’re still at a point of uncertainty – which scenario we will find ourselves in is dictated by five forces: 

  1. The pattern of disease infection
  2. The ability of the healthcare system to respond
  3. The public policy responses to the crisis
  4. The economic consequences of the crisis
  5. The social cohesion of societies responding to the crisis

The challenges facing businesses 

When we look at how businesses can navigate crises, it’s helpful to plan for three phases: stabilise, normalise and accelerate. 

Across the world, businesses are navigating at different speeds, depending on the localised issues they’re facing – regardless of where they are, however, the majority have developed their immediate responses to the pandemic. 

They’ve entered and are coming through the stabilise phase, during which they’ve mitigated short-term risks and stabilised operations, and have executed robust, immediate responses to the crisis.  

Taking care of people is at the heart of the stabilise phase. Quite simply, those businesses that take risks with employees are not going to have them around much longer. Given a choice (and we need to recognise here that many are making decisions to continue working out of desperation – they don’t have that choice), who’s going to work for a company that puts their health and their life in danger? 

After ensuring the safety and wellbeing of employees, there is a focus on the broader community – all of the people you come into contact with during your operations. Infecting a customer is a risk you cannot take. 

Looking beyond this, using your business’s resources and platform to protect and care for the broader community is just as important. In Singapore, we’ve seen infection rates flatten and then rise again, which could have been avoided if the community – including businesses – was concerned with the wellbeing of its most vulnerable members.

Many businesses have stabilised very well, particularly those in essential industries – aside from health this includes communications, food suppliers, food distributors and energy providers. They’ve all had to adapt to a whole new world very fast. 

Preparing for the temporary normal

Once stabilised, businesses must quickly turn their attention to our new ‘COVID-19 normal’. Within the normalise phase, businesses optimise the operating model for the in-crisis normal they are facing, and focus on programs to engage customers and serve their needs while ensuring business continuity.

New ways of working are being identified, implemented and refined, to survive and, for the lucky, to thrive. 

One thing we can be sure of is that this is a time for innovation. Ideas will be tested at a pace we haven’t seen for a long time. 

The benefit of hindsight allows us to speak of wars as a time of terrific innovation – in this sense we’re now in a war of sorts. Bombers overhead every day certainly got the British focused on how to identify them earlier, moving quickly to develop radar. 

Today, we’re already seeing new ways of operating, and product innovation and new ways to use those products. 

Take video conferencing, for example. All of these platforms were around before COVID-19, but they were peripheral to the lives of many. If they weren’t there, even regular users would have found an alternative. Now, we depend upon them. 

From a business perspective, we’ll see an explosion of innovation in everything to do with work and remote collaboration. Of course, there are some things we like about the office – that social and informal communication, sometimes even the ferry, tram or train. But who wants to do that five days a week now that we know it’s not really necessary? 

We’re not going back to the office full-time.

And it’s not just commuting. We’ll see a lot less business travel. At this stage domestic travel and relocation is looking like it will be a greater issue in the US than in Australia, but international travel will likely be difficult for some time yet. 

There are people and places I do want to see, and sometimes being face-to-face actually matters – now I’m learning when it does matter and, more pertinently, when it doesn’t. 

As more industries enter the stabilise phase we’ll see innovation in education, healthcare, government, entertainment and our social lives. 

For example, we have virtual cocktail hours with friends each week now. Some are distant and we wouldn’t have socialised with them regularly before, but we mean to keep doing it – we’re all learning new patterns of behaviour and new ways of doing things. 

Product strategies and operating models will evolve based on the learnings during the normalise phase – many of the changes that emerge from this will carry over to the accelerate phase and enable businesses to emerge stronger from the crisis.

Looking ahead

For the near future, however, we’re in survival mode. Economic recovery may take longer than recovery from the global financial crisis. While those five uncertainties I mentioned earlier – disease severity, healthcare response, government collaboration, economic consequences and social cohesion – mean it is still impossible to pin down exactly which scenario, or combination of scenarios, we will see in Australia and New Zealand, it’s useful to know:

  • Which scenario our organisations are planning for.
  • Whether there are any scenarios we’re ignoring.
  • Any changes we’d need to make to thrive in each scenario.
  • Any blind spots our organisations have in terms of capabilities, partnerships, segments and workforce strategies. 

This way, we can ensure that when it’s time to accelerate, we are poised to.

For now, it’s imperative for businesses to care for their communities, stabilise their operations and map their way towards the new normal. They must learn from what’s happening now, evolve and iterate. 

Focus on how you make decisions, how you work, how you engage customers and how you serve society. Regardless of anything else that’s happening, these are the four areas that are going to influence how you emerge. 

Peter Schwartz is Chief Futurist at Salesforce. 

For more advice, check out this collaborative dialogue hosted by Deloitte and Salesforce, ‘The world remade by COVID-19, planning scenarios for resilient leaders’.

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Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is an internationally renowned futurist and business strategist, specializing in scenario planning and working with corporations, governments, and institutions to create alternative perspectives of the future and develop robust strategies for a changing and uncertain world. As Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning for Salesforce, he manages the organization’s ongoing strategic conversation. Peter also leads the Salesforce Futures LAB – a collaboration between Salesforce and its customers around provocative ideas about the future. Prior to joining Salesforce, Peter was co-founder and chairman of Global Business Network. He is the author of several works. His first book, The Art of the Long View, is considered a seminal publication on scenario planning. Peter has also served as a script consultant on the films "The Minority Report," "Deep Impact," "Sneakers," and "War Games." He received a B.S. in aeronautical engineering and astronautics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. Connect with Peter on Twitter @peterschwartz2.

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