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This post was written by Doug Randall, a CEO coach at the Trium Group.

Although the global crisis is far from over, it’s time for business leaders to turn their collective gaze to the next five years. The shrewdest businesses imagine what the future may bring — and create strategies to win.

Working backwards

Working backwards is a core strategy at Amazon, where in the early stages of a product idea, the team creates a future press release and corresponding FAQ document in order to spark the process. In my work with scenario planners at Royal Dutch Shell, the CIA, and Global Business Network, we have used this approach for decades.

Begin with a careful exploration of the full range of potential disruptions outside of your control. It’s time to think big.

Following the process

Executive teams can enact this proven four-step approach in a matter of months:

  • Step 1: Create 5-year scenarios describing the environments you might operate in
  • Step 2:Work backwards to develop winning strategies for each operating environment
  • Step 3:Choose the no-regrets moves, big bets, and incremental experiments you will begin today
  • Step 4: Adapt, refine, and integrate as part of your annual planning process

Imagine it’s 2026. How prepared is your company for these scenarios? How would your company win? What capabilities would you need?

Scenario 1: Corporate power

A booming winner-take-all economy fueled by a business-first playbook leading to further inequality and a focus on economic prosperity.

The post-pandemic unleashing of consumer demand, unbridled access to capital, and a seemingly monolithic focus on old-style capitalism put business in the driver seat of explosive economic growth. Driven by corporate ambition, innovation outpaces regulation in the United States. Foreign aid to those nations not participating as fully in the knowledge economy has fallen.

In this hyper-competitive world, the best business ideas win and scale quickly. Knowledge workers are in high demand as artificial intelligence and robotics eat away at lower-paid work in manufacturing, healthcare and food service, leaving behind communities that were already hit hard during the pandemic.

Corporations shore up coveted talent by funding higher education through innovative study-to-work contracts — and with this comes influence over curricula. The rapid growth in high-wage, knowledge-based occupations is met with declines in low-wage occupations, further exacerbating the workforce divide. Little attention is paid to displaced workers, systemic racism or other workforce inequities. Increasing corporate power stifles any attempts to unionize.

Scenario 2: Power to the people

Widespread distrust in governments and corporations creates pressure to rebuild consumer trust — with a focus on purpose, sustainability, connecting with the needs of affinity groups and a high level of individualization.

Unmoored by a digitally connected, always-on world, people crave deeper, purpose-driven, and community-specific experiences. The accelerated adoption of remote work combined with a hyper-individualized cultural movement leads to a deepened connection to identity over physical place — a shift that threatens traditional forms of government.

With a deeper appreciation for transparency and personalization, there’s a massive increase in everything digital led by trusted transactions on the block chain and engagement in the meta-verse. Empowered consumers demand control over their personal data, putting pressure on some parts of the digital economy. They boycott companies that do not align with their visions of society and privacy. Successful employers find ways to build trust with their employees and customers. There are significant opportunities in social e-commerce and dynamic ecosystems that provide affinity groups with connection, commerce, and experiences.

Scenario 3: Rolling pandemics

An extended recession leads to a slowing of innovation, fragmented industries and a focus on cost savings and survival.

Rolling pandemics continue. Years of economic decline are wearing down the global economic system. A polarized and resource-poor world prioritizes local concerns such as energy independence over global ones like the environment.

High unemployment exacerbates socio-economic, geographic, and industry divides. Government bailouts sustain critical industries including national defense. Private investment in R&D has dropped dramatically, curtailing innovation, startups, and longer-term solutions. Remote work and virtual meetings rise further, enabling companies to shed 30% of the offices in the U.S. The resulting isolation causes high levels of psychological distress.

Scenario 4: Great transformations

Effective collaboration between governments and corporations on climate, inequality, cyber and public health brings about high levels of disruption and transformation both in the scope of problems being addressed and how work gets done.

A soaring economy propped up by the high-tech, health-tech, and biotech revolutions couples with unprecedented collaboration among governments, business, and populations. Public-private collaboration brings a renewed focus on sustainability, tapping into a strong global conscience. Organizations apply lessons from the successful management of the pandemic more broadly. For example, economic stimulus propped up the renewable energy ecosystem. The U.S. and most other countries are beating greenhouse-gas emissions targets by 20%. Education access and reform accelerated thanks to lower-cost, virtual solutions. Food science has improved yields. AI-powered simultaneous translation brings people together around the world. The underserved half of the world is well on its way to Internet connectivity.

The entrepreneurial landscape is thriving, capital is plentiful, and investments take a long-term view. The U.S. government has taken over as its citizens’ main source of health insurance, enabling companies to invest resources in other areas of growth. Creative, empowered workers drive innovation – making motivated employees the ultimate competitive advantage.

The next five years start today

These scenarios describe four very different realities in which we may find ourselves. Are you prepared for all of them?

The greatest value of this process comes from building scenarios that address your immediate strategic choices. When we look at the next five years for retailers, for example, we explore scenarios including the proliferation of non-physical goods like NFTs, the impact of social commerce, and the capacity to offer custom, affinity-group-based experiences. Our enterprise software scenarios examine the evolving integration of data and analytics, shifting demands around API’s, and alternative models for accelerating sales funnels and renewals.

Preparing for the next five years is more than a one-time thought experiment. It’s an opportunity to collectively imagine what the future might hold, and rehearse various approaches.

Louis Pasteur noted that “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” The act of rehearsing these potential futures will prepare your company for almost any future.

Doug Randall is a Partner and CEO coach at The Trium Group. He helps organizations of all size scale by aligning executives and their teams on strategic, relational, and emotional issues. He is the founder and past CEO of Protagonist, the Narrative Analytics company and Monitor 360, a leader in scenario planning and managing uncertainty. He has lectured at the Wharton School, Stanford University, and National Defense University on strategy, narratives, leadership, and negotiations. He can be reached at Doug.Randall@triumgroup.com.

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