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When the world comes to a grinding halt, what do you do next?

I started the Just Imagine blog four years ago with a single goal: to give our people permission to think differently about the future.

Since that time, our people have written about an amazing array of topics covering leadership, diversity, disruption and sustainability to name but a few. Each time, the content, topic and position has been rather controversial and future oriented. We adopted a style of being the provocateur and challenging the status quo to shake things up and make people look twice.

Yet four years ago, or even four weeks ago, I never could have seriously contemplated the scenario we are seeing right now unfold before our eyes. I wouldn’t have been taken seriously had I written a blog that started with “Just imagine the world coming to a grinding halt for six months…” – even though we are the ones who like to go to the edge!

But here we are!

So, what do we do when the almost implausible becomes your new reality? What do you do when a disruptor, in this case biological rather than digital, rewrites the business plan for almost every organisation on the planet?

True disruptors are rarely your current competitors

They come from below or places you are not expecting. Mehrdad Baghai, co-author of The Alchemy of Growth, recommended that organisations need to work across three horizons simultaneously in order to achieve sustainable growth and defend against disruption.

Horizon 1 was your current business as usual. Horizon 2 was new products and services, and Horizon 3 was the space for experimenting and seeding options for the future. This strategy has received much recognition in the business world. However, most organisations fail to implement it effectively. Most companies are too busy in Horizon 1 to dedicate the necessary time and effort to Horizons 2 and 3. What this does is leave organisations vulnerable to disruption and, for many, this is where we are seeing them now.

What COVID-19 has unwittingly done is reduced the H1 revenue stream of many businesses around the world, in a matter of weeks, in some cases, to zero. It’s proving to be the ultimate disruptor. New business models will need to be written and quickly. The imperative of finding new sources of revenue from your current underutilised assets will come to the fore.

Businesses have a choice now. The natural reaction – either in busy times or times of crisis – is to focus on H1 only and ignore H2 and H3. Yet history shows that life changes significantly after a major event . Do you hunker down, and hope that when things are over, you’ll still be able to put up an open for business sign? The trap in this thinking is that your customers’ behaviours are likely to have changed. They might not want your products or services in the way you had previously delivered them.

The risk of becoming risk averse

The obvious reaction for many will be anxiety and, what follows from that, fear. In the face of these emotions, we inherently seek security and safety. We become risk averse.

When we become risk averse we don’t try new things and don’t experiment. If this occurs at an organisational level, and many organisations become risk averse, then we quickly end up all looking the same. This is a world of lack of differentiation and a sure path to commoditisation.

Success after COVID-19 will require a new way of thinking about your assets and customers and it will need a design mindset. Your innovation will need to be the sharpest it has ever been to make it through to the other side and grow stronger as a result.

Understanding how customer behaviours are going to change will be crucial for future success .

How can you innovate and use assets differently? For example, hotels are now being used as isolation spots. What IT infrastructure do you have that could be used to augment the National Broadband Network? What pain points are your customers experiencing right now from social isolation and what insight can you gain to design a better product/service? I’ve seen nimble gym owners pivot and rent out their equipment – perhaps this model will be continued even when they reopen.

Almost every industry will be impacted as this is disruption on a scale we’ve never seen before. Previously disruption was thought about on an industry by industry basis, but we haven’t considered the same disruptor disrupting everything at the exact same time.

Perhaps an alternative exists

Over the months ahead, we are all likely to get a crash course in the very foundations of economic theory. We will need to think deeply about how customer behaviour will change in the way they consume our products and services.

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the memes circulating about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Isaac Newton invented calculus during quarantine for the plague. The Great Plague has been christened as giving birth to modern society, resulting in the creation of hospitals, guns and modern homes. As labour became more precious, tools that made work easier were invented. Clocks and hourglasses came into existence to track the time people spent working, the first eyeglasses were introduced to increase productivity.

Boston smallpox resulted in the first independent newspaper in the US. The SARS epidemic in China is largely credited with the penetration of eCommerce in China, and it’s expected a post-COVID China will be a cashless society.

For the next few months, Just Imagine will focus on thinking differently about assets, customers, human behaviour and business models, giving oxygen to the innovations and inventions that could potentially emerge from COVID-19. We will use our imagination to think of the world after coronavirus, and what this could mean for businesses and infrastructure. And perhaps when we “just imagine” alternative possibilities in the future, they might not be such a far stretch from our actual reality.

We want to know what you would like to see more of at Just Imagine – feel free to share your views, ideas and feedback by emailing us here. Our thoughts are with all of our readers during this challenging time, and hope that we can provide some welcome and helpful distraction.

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20 replies »

  1. Great read John – I hope you are feeling well today.

    Some of our greatest inventions have been borne from times of adversity, canned/jar foods, the Internet and duct tape to name a few. The world will never be the same again as long as this remains living memory, our focus will shift for the better, compassion and empathy will increase, the appetite for controlled risk and innovation will increase, the way we work will be more flexible, and our understanding of our real impact to the environment will be clearer. Out of this will be a lot of good to counter the awful human and financial cost planet earth will experience.

    We are all in this together, be kind, stay safe.

  2. Great read. Some of the questions are if people get used to working from home is there a pressing need for transport infrastructure. And in what other ways will people socially interact in future?

    • Thanks Shamal and you pose a good question around the need for transport infrastructure. Our next Just Imagine blog, by Sam Linke, actually addresses this question so watch out for that.

  3. As a homeworker typically before all of this, I suspect that many people will gain a better appreciation that doing so isn’t necessarily the barrier to social interaction, beset with constant homely distractions. Instead, home-working stops being just the ‘flexible option’, with suspicious glances thrown around whenever it’s mentioned, and is embraced for it’s wider responsible working attributes. As the air pollution levels are already starting to show, turning back on the car ‘tap’ should be ring the alarm bells we need.
    I look forward to reading future musings from Aurecon on this!

  4. We WILL find better solutions to the multitude of challenges dictated by this global anomaly – humans are resourceful, resilient and inventive. I do wonder however, what lessons will we learn along the way. History has a habit of repeating itself and in our relentless quest to move forward we often neglect to take time to reflect… to ponder what’s possible, not simply jump to what’s probable.

    If we’re on the threshold of “giving birth” to a new society – what should that society aspire to be? The future is an object of design and each of us, a designer.

    • I recall your advice to me some years ago Maureen Thurston that an innate sense of optimism and constantly looking for a better way is a characteristic of a designer. It is those attributes that we need now.

  5. Great read, thanks John. I think many people are hoping that this will restart our economies globally on a much greener and sustainable level. Exactly how this could work would be great to investigate. For example, we are currently creating the data to proof that mir working from home can beat face-to-face in terms of efficiency, time spent and emissions. Thanks, and stay healthy.

    • I agree Daniel Borszik. On this exact topic check out Paul Gleesons most recent Just Imagine blog on “The sobering lessons for climate change that COVID-19 teaches us – but is anyone listening?”. Its a great read and right on point with your comment.

  6. John, as well as the opportunity rich future envisaged in the wake of Covid-19, there is another more immediate scenario “innovations to create livelihoods in our Covid-19 future!” There is the possibility Covid-19 could be an eternal challenge…………………………….

    To paraphrase Nat Geo: {According to a Elly Gaunt, – a virologist at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute – four other coronaviruses are already in circulation that all cause the common cold – we don’t stay immune to those for very long. If the novel coronavirus is similar, that means that people would need to be repeatedly vaccinated or infected for herd immunity to be sustained……………..}

    We already do this for the less deadly influenza viruses, yet half a million people (give or take 150,000) die worldwide each year. A lifetime with the Covid-19 challenge may be more real than we’d like to imagine, possibly our new reality, if we are looking only at success after Covid-19 then we are may end up being the spectators and adopters rather than the innovators that we truly are.

    • Yes Mark, indeed, there is a possible future where COVID 19 re-emerges as an annual occurrence, much like the flu season. I hope that is not the case. But that is yet unknown. If it does eventuate then there may be no “post COVID – 19” but instead an approach to navigating, living and adapting. Either way, there will be a need to adapt and innovate to whatever challenge we face.

  7. Great thought provocation, John and all of your replies. Thank you.

    And I do have a question: How can new thoughts be born of familiar words and old stories?

    If we hope for a bolt of inspiration by your Lewis Carol story, we will be waiting along time and the world has not “ground to a halt”. Far from it. The world has changed for ever.

    In the main, such Fraudian expressions fail to stimulate the subconscious, which is the only way the process of new thinking, starts.

    How do we create the space for new thinking?

    • I am not sure that I can answer your questions Donald, as I think much of this lies in the mindset that we each choose to adopt. I am often reminded of a quote from Michelangelo on this topic which was “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it”.

      • Well done John

        For understanding that posting a blog is to invite conversation. Too often it appears a writer believes their work to be done once the article is published. Likewise most people who comment, believe their contribution is complete once they press the submit button.

        I’m inspired to comment further, because I see a clue in your response. You appear to believe that having an answer would be virtuous in responding to my question. (I hope you can accept this observation with the love intended.) My observation might be right or wrong, it doesn’t matter.

        The framework that guides me in making this observation is that ‘answers fill space, good questions open up space’. There are times for both affects, but new thinking only happens is a widening space.

        Having worked with people across a wide range of industries, perceptions and ages, I’ve come to the conclusion that cultures which place a high value on answers are the most limited in times of uncertainty.

        What would an “I know” free zone look like?

        I love the proverb, “it would be a sad day in the forest if the only birds who sang were those who sang perfectly”.


        • I love that proverb Donald. I also agree with you that an innovative culture is more about the questions we ask rather than the solutions we come up with. If we ask the right questions then the creative solutions will (hopefully) emerge. Indeed we invite, and relish in, the conversation and the debate; noting that there is always likely to be different points of view. So thank you for participating in the conversation. We look forward to hearing more of your point of view on other Just Imagine musings. Best regards. J

  8. Indeed this is a new “horizon” with the opportunity to do a stocktake of how we work, do business and live our lives in the community, taking the lessons learned and innovations born during this lockdown is essential, added to some blue sky thinking will reveal possible futures

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