Sunday, October 4, 2020

Why Planning for 2021 Will Soon Become a Little Less Daunting


In case you haven't noticed, we're now in the fourth quarter of 2020, which means that many business and marketing leaders have started planning for 2021. Developing sound business and marketing plans is never easy, but the task becomes truly daunting when a global pandemic turns the business world upside down.

Planning for next year is challenging because of continuing uncertainties about the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the next several months, the performance of the U.S. economy will largely depend on medical and scientific developments relating to the treatment and prevention of COVID-19. These developments will also significantly impact the business conditions that B2B companies will face in 2021. So in this year that is unlike any other, effective planning will require company leaders to consider topics that usually have no relevance for most businesses.

The good news is, we have made substantial progress on the medical/scientific front over the past several weeks. For example, there are now four COVID-19 vaccine candidates in Phase 3 clinical trials in the U.S. (Note:  AstraZeneca's trial has been temporarily paused in the U.S. because a U.K. trial participant developed an unexplained illness, and Novavax plans to begin its U.S. trial this month.)  

We are likely to get preliminary results from some of these trials within the next sixty days. Whatever those results are, we should have a clearer picture of when a vaccine is likely to be available, and that should enable company leaders to develop more realistic plans for 2021.

In an earlier post, I discussed the value of using scenario planning to deal with high levels of uncertainty. With scenario planning, business and marketing leaders develop alternative strategies that are based on a range of possible future conditions. But to support effective planning, the scenarios used must be realistic. Because of the enormous and growing volume of information relating to the pandemic and the future direction of the economy -  much of which is contradictory - developing realistic scenarios can be extremely challenging.

An article published recently by McKinsey & Company is a useful resource for developing realistic scenarios relating to the trajectory of the pandemic. The title of the article expresses the question that is top of mind for all of us - "When Will the COVID-19 Pandemic End?"

The article's authors identified two "end points" for the pandemic.

An epidemiological end point that will occur when a society achieves herd immunity. The authors noted that most companies will rely on a vaccine to achieve herd immunity. Reaching this end point will mean that ". . . the public-health-emergency interventions deployed in 2020 will no longer be needed."

The second end point is a transition to a form of normalcy. This end point will occur when " . . . almost all aspects of social and economic life can resume without fear of ongoing mortality . . . or long-term health consequences related to COVID-19." The authors of the article pointed out that this transition will occur gradually, and that the timing of the transition will depend on the successful rollout of an effective vaccine beginning in the fourth quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2021, and on continuing advances in therapeutics and clinical practices.

For planning purposes, the most important point in the article relates to the timing of the two end points. The article states:

"In the United States and most other developed economies, the epidemiological end point is most likely to be achieved in the third or fourth quarter of 2021, with the potential to transition to normalcy sooner, possibly in the first or second quarter of 2021." (Emphasis added)

Some business and marketing leaders may be disheartened by McKinsey's "most likely" scenario, but I view it as relatively positive. If this scenario proves to be accurate, we could see early signs of a return to a form of normalcy within the next six months.

Of course, the McKinsey "most likely" scenario is not a given. The article's authors noted that it depends on several factors, including:

  • The authorization of at least one vaccine for COVID-19 by the end of 2020 or early in 2021
  • The successful rollout of a vaccine to a sufficient portion of the population within about six months
  • A reasonably broad-based willingness by people to be vaccinated once a vaccine is available
These conditions may or may not materialize, but as I observed earlier, we should get critical information about the status of vaccine development within the next sixty days or so, and that will provide at least some of the clarity needed to support effective planning for 2021.

Image courtesy of Dan Moyle via Flickr CC.

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