Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all enjoyed some well-deserved down time with loved ones. A week into 2021 is a good time to take stock of the remarkable year we’ve just lived through and to plot our best course forward for 2021 and beyond.
While we’re in the peak of COVID’s winter resurgence, the vaccines are coming online and, in the meantime, we’ve adapted our business and consumer behaviors to keep major parts of the economy running. In some ways, 2021 could end up looking like a mirror image of 2020 — entering the year under the duress of COVID and exiting strong, as we barrel toward this century’s “Roaring 20s.” An optimist can hope, after all.
Looking Down the Hall of Mirrors
And speaking of mirrors, just like in the fun houses from our younger days, there are many mirrors that we’ll likely gaze into this year, as we plan our way forward.
The Clear and the Distorted Mirrors (Known-Knowns and Known-Unknowns)
In some respects, 2021 will look like recent years. We can expect our fair share of natural disasters disrupting supply chains: wildfires, hurricanes, floods and even insect infestations. The frequency and magnitude of these disruptions are unknown, but they have both trended high enough, lately, where some leaders question whether they simply need to plan for a constant state of disruption. This shift in perspective might feel incremental from the past, but it has significant repercussions on supply network design, operational capability development, and organizational design and governance.
There are also changes driven by our 2020 pandemic experience that will carry forward and alter the ways we work and live, as compared to the pre-2020 timeline — accelerated shifts toward direct-to-consumer and patient models and hybrid workplace arrangements, for instance.
Finally, there are behavioral shifts where the trend is increasing, but the mainstream tipping point is unclear. These include moves toward regenerative environmental sustainability in carbon, plastics, water, soil and forests, and moving the needle on building diversity, equity and inclusion in our organizations.
The Hazy Mirrors (Unknowns-Knowns)
The incoming U.S. administration’s foreign and trade policy stance leans toward renewing historical alliances and lowering the temperature on recent tensions, but there are many players whose motives and potential geopolitical moves are less clear, increasing the risk of flashpoints. Examples include unintended consequences playing out of the UK’s recent Brexit or China applying portions of its Hong Kong playbook in Taiwan.
Cyberattack disruptions are another “unknown-known” situation to the extent that hackers and eventually their targets know the extent of the damage but are not incentivized to share it more broadly with the community, which could help prevent further spread. Exhibit A is the recent Russian hack of U.S. government and global corporate systems. There are generalized hints at its scope and impact in the press, but the silence has been deafening when it comes to the specifics.
The Dark Mirrors (Unknown-Unknowns)
Cue Donald Rumsfeld for these future “X factors.” The COVID-19 pandemic would have qualified for this category back in 2019. The world knew that pandemics like the Spanish Flu were within the realm of possibility, but the probability seemed so low and our recent experience had no modern equivalent, that it landed much like a meteor would out of the blue.
Following the outer space theme, there are potential game changers lurking outside the boundaries of our world. For instance, what will the implications be once we are able to mine rare elements off-planet? Skeptics abound, but honestly what would the reaction be if you told someone in 1921 that we’d be walking on the moon in mere decades.
The realm of possibility is broadest for these double unknown scenarios. Harder-to-plan drivers and events have led some companies to adopt an adaptive planning approach.
As we look at the collective mirrors in front of us, we can take comfort that we’re still here and stay humble in the knowledge that 2021 will look much different at its end, than we ever imagined back in January.
Here’s hoping that it is better than planned this time!
VP Distinguished Advisor
Gartner Supply Chain