Planning for Normal: 4 Critical Questions to ask Yourself

Posted by Patti Mikula on May 20, 2020

In the initial days and weeks of this global pandemic we were focused on the urgent, immediate, needs -- the health and safety of our team members and their families and the programs in the near-term pipeline (for us, that was anything before September). Now that we are 10 weeks in, and we have a more comfortable grasp on “now”, we are beginning to think about the future.

Usually when we are planning 6-12 months ahead we have a keen sense of the variables. But the future state is so uncertain right now it may as well be 6 - 12 years in the future. So how do you plan now for events down the road while in the middle of a pandemic? We’re working through that process with a number of our clients and thought we could share our approach.

We can borrow techniques from futurists, those who specialize in exploring uncertain futures. The Future Today Institute (founded by Amy Webb, author of The Signals are Talking, an excellent read in its own right) suggests an Axis of Uncertainty to determine potentialfuture states. Depending on the complexity of what you are planning, that may be an excellent tool to identify the parameters you are working  with.

But we can make this even simpler. We can explore two known states and one unknown: The past state, (“normal”), the current state (“now”) and a future state (“next”). In our case, “normal” would include lots of in-person events -- hackathons, workshops, bootcamps and pitch days. We loved large crowds -- the more the merrier! And the “now” state requires us to make all of those touchpoints virtual. What ‘s “next”? What will the future state look like? For our events with a time horizon where the potential for in-person events is uncertain (6+ months from now) we are asking ourselves (and sometimes our clients) the following questions.

What is your objective? This is always important to understand, but even more so now. How will the two states (“now” and “next”) change your ability to meet your goals? Don’t simply plan for a virtual version of the event you planned six months ago.  At the beginning of each project our team holds a discovery meeting where we explore all of the possibilities for how we can meet the program objectives. When facing a radical change such as we are experiencing now, it is critical to take a step back and explore the ways in which your objective can be met through online or virtual means, or with smaller groups participating. It may not look at all like you had originally planned, and that is okay. The key is ensuring your objectives are met.

If your objective 100% requires in-person participation of a large group, or the virtual execution is prohibitively expensive, you may need to review your timeline and consider pushing it out until there is more certainty. 

What are the forces beyond your control? Beyond the obvious -- government regulations and orders to stay home, shelter in place etc., ask yourself what else is critical to the success of your program that is outside of your control. Do you need partners? Do you need participants in a particular industry? The healthcare industry is under a great deal of stress right now. But some industries are moving forward largely unimpeded other than the need for remote work and physical distancing. Perhaps you can change the industry you are targeting. Do you need to book or confirm a venue far in advance? Will you need to book travel? What are the cancellation policies, and will you lose money if you have to pivot? 

What are the signals saying? This is where you can leverage the techniques of futurists. What is happening on the fringes that may indicate a sign of the future? How can you scan the market, the industry or the world and what should you include in your scan? We can look to jurisdictions that have already moved into their “next” state for indications of what may happen where you are. New Zealand, Austria and Japan have begun to loosen restrictions. Equally important to the regulations is the public response. While many areas have seen people championing for the “opening” of their communities, it remains to be seen if people will readily return to “normal” activities once the regulations allow them to.

This is where you can use your Axis of Uncertainty to explore your future state. Brainstorm a series of uncertainties. This can be external (regulatory, health and safety, legal) or internal (budget, human resources etc.). Select two uncertainties and place them on your two axes. This will create four quadrants representing scenarios at the four extremes of your uncertainty. Now, write a short description of the scenario in each of those quadrants. Your axes will be unique to your needs, but in this example the two axes represent the limitations on physical gathering (extreme social distancing vs no limitation) and the focus of the public (entirely focused on the pandemic vs a return to focus on life post-pandemic). Now you can use this framework to explore how you can develop a program in each of those scenarios that meets your objectives.

If you don’t feel confident in your ability to translate the signals, or you simply don’t have the time, you can look for a proxy. Is there some other person, company or organization that you can leverage? Large organizations including Google and Facebook have announced they are limiting gatherings of 50 or more people for the foreseeable future, and at least through spring 2021.

What is your tolerance for uncertainty and change? And finally, are you and your team comfortable living with a certain level of uncertainty and pivoting as needed? If executing your program requires a great deal of approval or consensus, making changes on the fly is next to impossible. And are you comfortable assuming the risks and potential costs associated with pivoting? If not, then you may want to choose the safer path and either delay your event or develop a plan that works in the “now” state regardless of what our state may be in 6-12 months.

We are planning a program with a client for the fall, and in the early stages of the pandemic we scoped out two scenarios -- one that would be fully virtual and one that would be in-person. We have looked for components of the planning that won’t change regardless of the final execution and we have front-loaded our workback plan with these components. We’ve determined when we will need to choose a singular path (or incur the additional effort and cost of planning for both options). For us, this Go/No Go date is a couple of months from now. So until then we will live in a Schrodinger's Cat-type of paradox -- our event will be both virtual and in-person.

If you are considering a hackathon (in person or virtual) and would like to consider all of your options, feel free to reach out -- we would be happy to help you through the exploration and share our ideas for how to engage communities virtually in meaningful and impactful ways.

Hackworks