If it feels difficult to remember a pre-coronavirus age then just remember; it is only a month since the media was temporarily fascinated by Andrew Sabisky and the subject of super-forecasting. As Westminster settled in for what seemed likely to be a dull five years of stable government and no referendums, we were back in comfortable territory, discussing larger than life political characters, their intellectual quirks and their social peccadilloes. Super-forecasting emerged from the work of Philip Tetlock, whose studies suggested that if you want to know the future of economics or politics you’d be better off seeking out divinations or Pulpo Paul than the so-called experts.
It is always a good idea to have a healthy suspicion of those who claim to know precisely what is coming down the track. But the question we get asked most commonly is “so, what’s going to happen?” Of course, in most instances we might know someone who has the answer (or who knows someone who knows someone who does.) That’s our job. But, after seeing others make the mistake of getting too bold with their crystal ball, we always try to resist the temptation to dive into the deep-end with wild predictions and extrapolation. In our business, it’s important to know where your knowledge ends and your bias begins. Your clients might like to hear your theories, but they won’t be so impressed if you end up very, very wrong.
Coronavirus is a perfect example of this. Not just in the way it has derailed the political narrative that had emerged, but in the way confident assertions are already being made about what comes next. A belief is taking hold on some parts of the political left that now even fiscally conservative western governments have turned on the spending taps, the ideological argument is won and left-wing economics have triumphed. On the right, the current positive polling enjoyed by Boris Johnson is used as an example of the inevitability of his political dominance.
Either of these could be correct. But I am in awe of the self-belief of those who are happily nailing their colours to them. It may well be that the current crisis changes public perception of government spending – but, equally, after the 2008 financial crash, people accepted austerity as a cost of the public debt. On the other hand, those chalking up success for the Prime Minister should be mindful of the experience of Gordon Brown, for whom public support rocketed during the foot and mouth outbreak and the failed terror attacks that marked the start of his Premiership. Within two years he was out of office.
The reason the super forecasters supposedly have a better record than the pundits is because they attempt to remove political biases and grand narratives and replace them with a focus on historical and emerging trends. In that spirit, I would suggest that rather than anticipate the dramatic emergence of a new political order, people focus on the ripples of the public mood. In recent weeks, companies that have put immediate business concerns second to their employees’ wellbeing and security or who have acted selflessly to help out where they can – such as distillers using their alcohol to manufacture hand sanitiser – have captured the public imagination. Bosses considered to be showing callous disregard for their workers or who have been demanding bail outs while continuing to take dividends will not be forgotten quickly.
The main criticism of those who failed to heed social distancing measures has not been stupidity, but selfishness. The outrage at councils putting fines on the cars of people parked near A&E wards is about fairness. The hundreds of thousands volunteering to help the NHS is about a sense of duty: a recognition that we live in a shared society. At the heart of all this is the idea that people and companies should be judged on their contribution. In a sense this is not especially radical: not only is it JFK’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you”, it is also essentially the analysis – made in the early months of the Theresa May government – that has moved the Tories on from David Cameron’s austerity agenda to Boris Johnson’s levelling-up one.
All across the world people are wondering ‘what’s next?’ The truth is, no one knows what will emerge. But a good place to start for businesses of all shapes and sizes would be to ensure they are playing their part in the Government’s call for a national effort. That means thinking beyond bottom lines and squeezed margins and instead on employee wellbeing and the wider good business can do for the communities around them and society as a whole. Those who understand that this spirit is likely to last well beyond the crisis and frame the environment in which we operate could well find themselves in a better place than those who simply hope to return to business as normal.