Leeds Business School

Just what is the new normal? We need to make it with contrafactual futures thinking.

As we proceed through what many have called the ‘second wave’ of the Covid 19 pandemic, there is much talk of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ with the arrival of various vaccinations that may or may not allow a return to normal. However, most would agree that what we understood as normal is not available anymore; instead we have to embrace a ‘new normal’ even if there is no agreement on what this is.

Published on 07 Dec 2020
Abstract image of the glass ceiling of the Rose Bowl

Certainly, if polls are to be believed, although belief in polls has to be taken with a pinch of salt, people in the UK want a more supportive country based on kindness and more equality and they would be willing to pay more tax to achieve this. Notwithstanding current government policy on increasing taxes, such desires seem rather wishful in the face of economic and social turbulence. Even before the onset of the pandemic, some sectors and organisations were undergoing radical changes. For example, retailers such as Mothercare, Thomas Cook, Oasis and more recently the Arcadia Group were not able to respond to the changing sales channels and the preferences of younger customers. The pandemic has increased such pressures and extended them to nearly all other sectors. At a recent workshop to consider the future of tourism, most agreed that the days of cheap air travel were coming to an end and that pressure would grow to find a way to reduce the carbon effect of airplanes. If we add in the still emerging developments based on artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can see why images of the ‘new normal’ remain just that; images. What is needed is authentic leadership and a learning process by organisations to ensure that they set in motion a direction that makes the future based on values and desires and protects them from the vagaries of as yet, unknown effects. This is where futures and foresight learning comes into play, particularly an approach that gives expression to a consideration of what might be seen as impossible, improbable and even undesirable. We call such an approach ContraFactual Futures.

If Futures and Foresight is considered as concerned probable or different possible views of what lies ahead, ContraFactual Futures is a deliberate attempt to provoke thinking about impossible, improbable and/or unpreferred events in the future. One reason for adopting such an approach is to challenge current assumptions about what can happen which can prevent openness to unexpected events or patterns that take an organisation by surprise. In many senses, responses to the Covid 19 pandemic was based on false assumptions about viruses (it was not the same as flu) and the behaviour of people. So considering impossibles and unthinkable can act as early warning signals or allow plans for radical possibilities, like another pandemic in a few years’ time. A second reason for ContraFactual Futures is the release of brain power and imagination towards more fruitful and desirable possibilities. This is a switching process away from what we want to avoid or not happen to its converse; what we can encourage and make happen. If we can picture the impossible or undesirable, we can also imagine the opposite and set the direction for a new and better normal.

To embrace a contrafactual futures thinking, we need, like Maya Angelou, to hope for the best, prepare for the worst and be unsurprised by anything in between. This starts with changing individual and organizational mindsets, changing our values and encouraging more flexible strategies in our approach to life. We may have learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic some antecedent actions that can be deployed for future performance but until there is a change in common values, lessons learnt may only produce for us idealistic approaches without potency for future performance. In other words, to place knowledge in context, our ways of thinking and planning needs to be challenged.

There is a clear call for some “taken for granted” assumptions to be addressed and a systematic and disciplined approach to the future considered. However, to attain such a shift, stakeholders must be willing and ready to develop a very high propensity for practicing foresight, creating future scenarios and engaging in early signal discussions. Instead of resisting change, the Covid-19 pandemic has cornered many organizations in both the public and private sector, forcing them into embracing this shift in perspective and accepting new possibilities.

One key lesson learnt from the pandemic from the organizational point of view is the need to prepare for the expected and the unexpected by perceptively creating alternative futures that naturally feeds into a strong, flexible and resilient organization. With statistics from a recent survey showing over 40% of employers reporting that 70-99% of their workforce presently work from home, it is anticipated that many employers will promote a hybrid model of working which will invariably embrace innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning. This level of innovation is not, however, without their own challenges and ethical dilemma, which all comes back to contrafactual futures thinking. Although these deliberations can only be made in evaluative terms, they should be taken consciously and deliberately after all, to enjoy peace, is to be prepared for war!

Professor Jeffrey Gold

Professor / Leeds Business School

Jeff Gold is Professor of  Organisation Learning at Leeds Business School. He is a strong advocate of the need for actionable knowledge that is rigorously developed but relevant for practice. 

Joy Ogbemudia

Senior Lecturer / Leeds Business School

Joy is a Lecturer in the Leadership, Governance and People Management subject group at Leeds Business School, Leeds Beckett University. She specialises in Human Resource Management, Gender and Migration studies and Diversity Management.

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