Home / Opinion / Columns /  Can we really see around the bend in uncertain times?

Is the pandemic changing the world, or are we attributing the many changes of the recent past to the pandemic? When clients challenge me to predict what’s next for us, I usually quote Yogi Berra, even though I ain’t a New York Yankees fan: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

Most of my friends rant about tectonic shifts, but I believe the pandemic has only accelerated the changes that we have been seeing over the past couple of years. I also believe that this Mahabharata war, as the Prime Minister described, will probably last 18 months, not 18 or 21 days.

Sure, the post-pandemic effects will yield a new normal, rather than business as usual. But what is that normal? We, as leaders, need to make decisions based on data that offers us some indications. Not like the kind of flattening curves shown by Niti Aayog two months into our lockdown, which seem to be forever flattening at higher levels.

As we business-folk anxiously squirm in our executive chairs or sofas at home, trying to make business sense of the new “lockdownomics", it is tough for us to see around corners, so to speak.

My friend Professor Rita McGrath has outlined a few thoughts on “seeing around corners" in normal times in her book by that title, and here are my “five cents" for coronavirus times:

One, high uncertainty will drive India Inc to innovate: Disruptive innovation can be highly unpredictable, but the higher the uncertainty, the bigger the risk/return. We use a discovery-driven growth process for navigating a highly uncertain environment. Let us all agree that the level of uncertainty is pretty high this year and would be for much of next year.

Seeing around corners is never easy, and so is rarely attempted by most Indian enterprises. Now is the time to drive business disruption, though, especially given other big challenges like the fraying of ties with China. Remember that if we don’t disrupt our own business, someone else will. By listing out assumptions, testing them quickly and being agile, some of us can find winning disruptions for the new normal.

Two, research is fine, but…: Market research is always tricky in India, and this is even more so now. Let’s stick to exploratory research and not take the data as gospel truth. Consumers will say a lot of things, but with mounting job losses and over 800 million on the public distribution system, what data can we rely on? We may choose finer samples and still not get reliable data. Sentiments are ever fluid right now and no propaganda of economic green shoots can change that. Besides, most people suffer from anxiety, and market research can give us some trends, at best. For instance, participants in a recent survey said they would not travel and stay in hotels for the next one year. That could change once a vaccine is developed or a proper treatment protocol is clinically approved. Already, we have lockdown fatigue, which has led to covid spikes across India. Three weeks ago, I saw people in “social proximity" without masks, as if everything is almost normal. It clearly isn’t.

Search for sensible data: We must ignore the panic that seems to have gripped the country’s workforce. Many of the changes we see now have been in the making for some time now. Video meetings, online education, streaming entertainment, tele-medicine, work-from-home (WFH), etc. To extrapolate this, touchless entry-and-exit, voice-controlled lifts, robotic taxis, canned food, individually-packed fresh vegetables, etc, could be the new normal. A WFH study threw up an interesting insight. It’s great for women who have other responsibilities, like childcare, and for introvert men, so we could raise productivity by extending WFH for such employees post-pandemic. In all, one needs the longevity of trend data, rather than fleeting numbers.

Don’t bet on a vaccine yet: India’s call for one by Independence Day was a blunder. If high-level decisions are made on the bet of a vaccine being in place by a specific point in time, our economy could go awfully wrong. Any binary bet could prove disastrous, as even small-time gamblers could testify. It’s quite possible that we will have to learn to live with covid-19, as there may never be a workable vaccine. What we should do now for our businesses is scenario planning and risk heat mapping. Draw out all possible scenarios and prepare for what’s round the bend.

Be roughly right, not precise: It’s better to be roughly right and quick in testing concepts than the old way of being precise but slow. We shouldn’t hesitate to express our opinion on where we believe the world is headed. While doing so, we must be careful not to take any of it to heart. If data emerges that disputes our hypothesis, we should be ready to discard it. The essence of discovery driven disruption is this ability to test assumptions quickly and cheaply for faster course-correction.

So, go ahead and make predictions, but be ready to adapt them to reality quickly. It’s what I do. Remember, even the world’s best epidemiologists probably know as little about the future as you and I do.

M. Muneer is managing director of CustomerLab Solutions and co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute.

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