What COVID-19 Teaches About Embracing Foresight

Foresight July 28, 2020 By: Sue Pine, CAE and Terry Grim

A disciplined approach to the future will help prepare your association for wild cards—unexpected, high-impact events that cause sudden, widespread disruption. Like, for instance, a pandemic.

Did the coronavirus pandemic surprise you? If yes, what assumptions did you make that were incorrect? Exercising foresight forces you to challenge ongoing assumptions and pick up and possibly prepare for early signals of impending challenge.

While it’s challenging to do, engaging association volunteers and staff in thinking about how current trends will drive change five to 10 years hence dares participants to navigate the potential of high-impact risks and opportunities. Associations that have routinely ventured into these types of discussions are perhaps better prepared to pivot and adapt when the unexpected occurs.

Enter the Wild Card

A wild card is a low-probability, high-impact event. Wild cards disrupt the present—the “day” before a wild card is very different from the day (or days) after.

When I was earning my Certificate of Achievement in Strategic Foresight from the University of Houston, we studied the cone of plausibility, which is a way to understand the wide range of possible and probable futures.

As a possible future, a wild card is within the cone of plausibility, but it is not known when a wild card will happen, how it is likely to come about, and what it will look like. COVID-19 is a wild card. Globally, most public health specialists believed that there would be a pandemic. Many states and countries worked under the guidance of the World Health Organization on early awareness and preparation. Pandemics likely will occur again.

Preparing for a Wild Card

Before 2020, most association boards and staffs probably were not actively discussing potential scenarios that included a global pandemic. The void in discussing a variety of wild-card risk factors, like a pandemic, has had many associations scrambling to respond.

As our pandemic experience underscores, it is imperative that leaders instill and support foresight. Here are three signals that an association is making foresight part of its culture:

  • A foresight group is empowered to focus on identifying and monitoring the signals (trends), questioning them, and thinking creatively about the ones that could have a future impact.
  • Volunteer leaders willingly and consistently dedicate time to consider future scenarios.
  • The board better understands early signals and becomes more comfortable actively engaging in early-signal discussions and related planning for alternative futures.

To excite your stakeholders about practicing foresight, meet them at their level of readiness and build from that base. Help association leaders recognize when something is happening that could have an impact, and then create a safe environment to have an active discussion. For example, when reports identified COVID-19 in China in January, association leaders practicing foresight would have been aware of that early signal and spent some time discussing it. Then, when the virus began to spread to Europe—a stronger signal—they would have dedicated more time to discussing its implications and considering impact scenarios.

Practicing foresight provides experience in better understanding the early signals and creating scenarios that force questions about what those signals could mean for your constituencies.

Accelerated Trends

Wild cards accelerate trends. Several of the drivers of change documented through ASAE ForesightWorks, designed to support association leaders in navigating the future, reflect changes that were present prior to COVID-19 but are now accelerated. Through our experience, we are becoming comfortable with changes that were already happening, and we are being challenged to think through the implications of their permanence.

Some examples of ForesightWorks drivers of change that reflect this new world are

  • Virtualized Meetings: Associations that previously only dabbled in virtual committee or board meetings are delivering annual conferences virtually.
  • New Forms of Work:­ Association staff and members who transitioned to working from home will consider their office footprint and workforce expectations in post-pandemic times.
  • Socializing Reshaped: The need for social distancing has forced creative means of socializing at home and work.
  • Healthcare Disruption: The medical world quickly adapted to engage and deliver telemedicine.

Lasting Lessons

We will always have “now” tasks that distract our focus from the future. But a lesson to be learned from COVID-19 is that engaging with the possibilities of the future is critical for long-term success.

While wild cards like the coronavirus disrupt our world in a global way, other forecasts, uncertainties, and alternative futures are within our field of vision all the time. Adopting a consistent practice of futures thinking is critical to building a strong, resilient organization—ready for the expected and the unexpected.

Sue Pine, CAE

Sue Pine, FASAE, CAE, is a strategic advisor with Bloch and Reed Association Advisors, LLC, and chairs the ASAE ForesightWorks Advisory Group.

Terry Grim

Terry Grim, a partner in Foresight Alliance, is a futurist working on ASAE ForesightWorks.