This pandemic has devastated businesses, destroyed families, and upended livelihoods. COVID-19? No. Racism. While this problem is not new by any means, it has seen new attention and understanding in the wake of global protests about systemic racism, sparked by a succession of high profile police brutality cases suffered by Black Americans. Government officials in Ohio have declared racism is in fact a public health issue. Just as the Coronavirus pandemic sent organizations scrambling for answers in Q1 of 2020, the awakening to the pandemic of racism similarly caught the world flat footed on matters of racial equity this summer. What started as response to police brutality has quickly grown to encompass many other areas of racial iniquity. The recent ramifications of both pandemics have been swift and sweeping; leadership resignations, evolving customer preferences, supply chain disruptions, new rules for business operations, and more.
In a time of such uncertainty, how does one chart a path forward? Who knows what the market will look like a month from now, let alone next quarter or next year? One tool used by futurists and strategic foresight practitioners in such instances is Scenario Planning. It helps to distill the infinite number of possibilities for the future into a handful of plausible scenarios. Executive leaders and their teams use those scenarios as guideposts to plan for the future of their organization or industry. The approach was adapted from military use and popularized by early strategic foresight practitioners at Royal Dutch Shell.
In order to build probable scenarios of the future, organizations must look inwardly and beyond their company to read signals of change. The introspective part of this exercise assesses the investments and initiatives that underpin an organization’s near to mid term plans. Outwardly, leaders must scan a wide variety of indicators to understand how macro trends will impact their industry or market. This can be an unwieldy task, attempting to understand every possible influence to your industry. Thus, heuristics grew out of this need for direction. Scenario Planners often use STEEP analysis (societal, technological, economic, environmental, and political) to guide their trend spotting endeavors. Others dive even deeper with more thorough methodologies like STEEPLE or the 11 Sources of Disruption. These approaches can be time intensive, given the rigor of research that they require. The Futures Quadrant offers planners a more nimble option for analyzing plausible scenarios. The quadrant is created by overlaying two spectrums of uncertainty. The points of uncertainty can be related or completely different.
For the sake of timely exercise, lets consider the uncertainty of the two aforementioned pandemics (COVID-19 and racism). For the issue of COVID-19, we consider whether or not leaders will implement adequate safeguards and precautions to prevent or reduce the impact of future infectious diseases. Given the depth and weight of the topic of racism, we will consider it from a technological standpoint. In June 2020, IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft announced the end or suspension of use of facial recognition technology. The companies cited concerns of racial profiling when the technology is used by law enforcement. Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru of MIT & Stanford, respectively, found empirical evidence of racial bias in the algorithms behind facial recognition technology in their joint study. For our point of uncertainty related to race, we assess the use of facial recognition technology and the racially biased outcomes it currently produces. The outcomes at the intersection of the two issues creates four plausible future quadrants as seen below. The following Futures Quadrant considers four plausible futures for a retail company deciding whether or not to use facial recognition technology in the age of COVID-19.
The Clean Regime (Prevention/Face Recognition Banned)
Effective testing and educational communication related to COVID lead to a movement of ritualized cleaning that becomes embedded in the cultural zeitgeist. This causes increased spending in the cleaning products category and an embrace of policies that encourage healthy habits. Corporate policies like paid sick leave and increased remote work encourage sick people to self isolate, preventing further spread of illnesses. The Clean Regime habits results in containment of outbreaks and restored faith in public places. The armistice on facial recognition tech leads to investment in augmented reality tools. Retailers find ways to implement the tech to help customers find their way around stores and find info about products without having to touch them. Customers use their smart phones and AR enabled mannequins to see how different outfits look on figure.
The Showroom is Your Room (Pandemic/Face Recognition Banned)
Lack of COVID prevention measures keeps store foot traffic to a minimum as customers fear infection in public places. That lack of traffic in retail spaces makes the home shopping experience essential. Companies invest in augmented reality apps that mimic the traditional shopping experience wherever there customers happen to be. Their rooms become showrooms for retail products ranging from apparel to appliances. AR catalogs help customers envision the products that they no longer see and feel in person.
Rise of the HSA (Prevention/Face Recognition Proliferates)
Pandemic preventative measures successfully contain the COVID pandemic, but the approach comes at great cost. The formation of the Health Security Agency (HSA) ushers in an era of authoritarian tech use under the guise of pandemic protection. Citizens are subject to compulsory facial recognition scans and must submit to contact tracing via smart phone app in order to enter public places like shopping centers. While this contributes to a quicker return to business after outbreaks, the system leads to adverse experiences for women and ethnic minorities. The lack of calibration for their facial features leads to discriminatory outcomes and false readings. Retailers using such systems face lawsuits and significant declines to brand sentiment.
Blinding Bias in Tech (Pandemic/Face Recognition Proliferates)
Facial recognition technology unlocks previously unprecedented customization for customer experience in store. Reduced foot traffic from the ongoing pandemic allow for more personal care of the customers that do venture into retail locations. To make up for product sales shortfalls, retailers begin selling customer insights based on facial recognition data. The limitations of the technology lead to instances of mistaken identity for darker skinned customers. That experience further erodes public trust in big tech and causes heightened security concerns for businesses storing health and facial identification data.
The fictional scenarios above provide planners in the retail space with narratives to illustrate how their industry or market could change in the years to come. This Futures Quadrant looks at both internal and external points of uncertainty. For your purposes, the quadrant can look at two external factors or two internal factors. Various combinations of uncertainty vectors give planners more complete views of the world to come. The exercise here considers the outcomes for a retail company, but the methodology can be applied to any industry or organization. There are opportunities and threats to be identified across all four scenarios explored in this exercise. And it’s possible that none of these scenarios ever come to pass. The point of the exercise is not to predict the future, but rather to prepare for the possibilities. Effective strategic foresight doesn’t just end with the creation of a scenario planning graphic. To reap the full benefits of this tool, organizations should consistently scan for weak signals that indicate the future of their business. After using those signals to create plausible scenarios, take the exercise a step further by implementing plans to build toward preferable futures. While this doesn’t eliminate the ambiguity of our futures, it allows leaders to grow more comfortable with strategic decision making in the midst of uncertain times.
In the future, anything can happen. That’s why scenario planning is important. It takes the nebulous expanse of all possibilities and clusters them into plausible outcomes that can be readily understood, while still stretching imaginations beyond the status quo. Such understanding creates opportunity for action in preparation of the future. As the first half of 2020 has shown, decisive action during ambiguity is a skillset we all can and should work to improve.