Planning in an Ambiguous World

Once upon a time during job interviews I would ask one question without fail: “Are you comfortable with ambiguity?”  Naturally, the job candidate always said yes.  But the point of the question wasn’t to solicit a response that was better than another candidate’s.  No, it was to make the candidate realize they were entering a world that didn’t always offer easy answers and rote work assignments.

Welcome to 2020, the ultimate ambiguity.

The irony, of course, is that we’re supposed to live in an age of more data (and more answers) than any time in history.  I’ve embraced the supposed certainty of data as much as anyone.  And if you’ve paid any attention to social and traditional media in the last month, we have more so-called experts than ever.  We’re drowning in data and “expertise”…yet still thirsting for easy answers.

Get ready for more of the same.

Many of us are already just trying to get by from day to day.  The idea of planning for the future seems preposterous when so many people face such uncertainty almost literally every hour.  But great leadership always takes center stage in the absence of certainty.  If you’re waiting for less ambiguity to plan for the future, you’ll be waiting awhile.

But what does that future look like?  Again, no one can say with absolute confidence but I know this–we’re going to be responsible for shaping it.  Every one of you will be sought out to help lead the recovery from a crisis this great in scope and magnitude.  Given that, it’s not too early to think about what steps  to take once the all clear is given and the health risks have diminished.  Many of you are already doing great service in support of your communities.  Keep it up–but get to work planning your community’s recovery, too.  Here are six ways to help shape that response:

Stay in touch with your team.

Like most of us, they’re worried about their health, their families, and their livelihood.  Many are furloughed or laid off.  But if it’s financially feasible to bring some or all of them back at the right time, they will be needed. Badly.  Establish regular communication with your people so they know what’s going on and can hit the ground running at the appropriate time.

Build, rebuild, and curate your networks.

The recovery will require all the local and state government and private sector support you can muster, with everyone rowing in the same direction. Now’s also the time to reach out to small businesses and other key parts of the visitor economy to let them know you’re still here (don’t assume they know that–they have a lot going on), remind them of the resources available to them, and that you’ll want to work with them even more once the crisis has passed. There’s still going to be a lot of misinformation and confusion once we begin to emerge from this. It won’t be as easy as flipping the sign on the door to say “Open.”

Take a long hard look at your target audiences.

Regardless of whether the economic recovery is V-shaped, U-shaped, or a long Nike swoosh, we know from past economic downturns that travel does not bounce back equally for all people and in all places.  One of the limitations I see in some of the national market research being conducted during the crisis is thinking of the market only in the aggregate and failing to recognize that travelers are not a monolithic audience.  Although some of it is intuitive, we’re going to need to know about who is more likely to get in a car or board an airplane to travel for work or leisure.  Since you’re likely to have fewer financial resources once the economic recovery begins, understanding the audiences who are most likely to travel and those who are not is going to be critical to making your dollars work harder than ever.

The road to recovery is going to be very uneven, and segmentation of audience is vital for effective media and messaging.

Take a long hard look at your messaging.

Some of the words and imagery we have used just aren’t going to work in a post-lockdown world.  There will still be many people who are hurting, grieving, and suffering financially.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t sell ourselves when the time is right.  We should.  But now is the time to think about what works and what doesn’t.  For example, images of people gathering in large groups will probably be uncomfortable for a while even after we emerge from our collective cocoon.

Focus all your resources on your strengths.

The recovery is the time to avoid distractions. All it does is water down your remaining precious financial resources.

Take care of yourself.

Seriously.  Your community needs you in the days and weeks ahead.