By Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, Executive Advisor, Foresight First LLC
As association decision-makers strive to navigate the most serious disruption of our lifetimes, there is a crucial question they must ask: how can we better understand, anticipate, and prepare for a full range of plausible futures created by the COVID-19 pandemic? The most generative answer is the development of provocative scenarios of the future that will push their thinking about the myriad ways in which the world could shift as we move deeper into this turbulent decade. Here are three primary reasons why every association must develop meaningful scenarios of the future right away:
- There will not be a “new normal”—Everyone is longing for the return to their usual routines, but we must accept that there will be no going back to the pre-pandemic world, and no business-as-usual going forward. Instead, we will move through a series of "next normals" of varying durations and demands over the next 18-36 months, and possibly longer. Our current world of stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and wearing masks in public is the active next normal. Going into the summer, this will be replaced by another next normal as the economy begins to reopen, followed by another next normal if/when kids return to school in the fall, and yet another if/when there is second wave of infections later in the year. Developing scenarios will enable association decision-makers to preview various next normal trajectories so they can understand and anticipate the potential implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on their organizations and stakeholders and prepare both accordingly.
- The pandemic is a wake-up call—In an article [direct PDF download] published last summer, I began referring to this decade as The Turbulent Twenties. At the time, I did not realize we would experience our current level of turbulence within the decade’s first 120 days. Every association, then, should recognize this crisis as a wake-up call and early warning for what is still to come. The turbulence throughout this decade will reach far beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Other forces, including the increasing use of AI and automation technologies, the urgent threat of the climate crisis, and worsening economic inequality, will reshape every aspect of our lives. The pandemic is already accelerating and intensifying the impact of these and other forces of turbulence. Developing scenarios will make it possible for association decision-makers to explore the dynamic interaction among these various powerful forces so they can generate a range of options for beneficial action today on the challenges these forces will create in the years ahead.
- It is too early to talk about the “post-pandemic” world—Over the last month, I have reviewed a number of forecasts and predictions for “the post-pandemic” world. These efforts to imagine different plausible futures for after the pandemic ends are well-intentioned. Yet I believe they are premature, since at this moment we cannot know if or when this pandemic will be over. We are dealing with a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that the world has never previously seen. Through an unprecedented level of global scientific research cooperation, our understanding of the virus is growing rapidly. It will still require significant time and effort, however, to move from the current next normal to a possible future in which everyone in the United States and around the world has been safely vaccinated against COVID-19 and we establish herd immunity from widespread outbreaks. Since there will not be an obvious transition into a post-pandemic world, a more effective capacity-building practice for association decision-makers is developing scenarios that focus attention on how to reinvent their organizations for greater resilience and thrivability in a world irrevocably altered by the unintended consequences and enduring impact of a global pandemic.
At this inflection point for the entire world, association boards, chief staff executives, and other senior decision-makers need to learn as much as possible with the future to make sense, make meaning, and make intelligent decisions about how to guide their organizations, stakeholders, and successors into an extremely turbulent decade. Developing COVID-19 scenarios must be a central part of every association’s practice of foresight beginning immediately.
Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community. He can be reached at email@example.com and on LinkedIn.