Reopening at Zero

By Bob Johansen

Reopening at Zero

As the economy reopens after sheltering in place for months, many aspects of life will reopen at zero—not at the place they were before the shutdown.

Recall the concept of zero-based budgeting, which required that all expenses be justified and approved at the beginning each new budget year. Developed by Peter Pyhrr in the 1970s, the idea of zero-based budgeting is to restart from zero every year—rather than from last year’s budget. Everything has to be justified from the ground up, every year. Tough work, but there is an obvious value of rethinking what is truly valuable.

The post-outbreak reopening of the economy will be, for many businesses, a zero-based restart. Many things that were accepted or assumed before will have to be justified from scratch now. Restart from zero, not from where you were before the shutdown.

For example, in the pre-virus period, people were used to paying, without complaint, to attend in-person conferences. Post-outbreak, conferences have gone virtual, and most are for free. Post-outbreak, conference organizers will confront zero-based pricing. Gradually, virtual conferences are beginning to charge, but the pricing algorithms will start at zero—not what people used to pay for in-person conferences. Many categories of value (such as pricing expectations for in-person conferences) will restart at zero in the post-COVID world.

We are all facing a novel coronavirus. Novel means new, and new means that old categories may no longer apply. Don’t expect that what people used to pay pre-virus will be what they are willing to pay post-virus. The zero-based reopening will be very hard on many business models, but it is also an opportunity for disruptive innovation.

Restarting from zero may be a good thing for some institutions. Before the crisis, for example, nobody thought much at all about public health bureaucracies; if they did think about them, they were often viewed as a waste of time. Post-outbreak, perhaps people will realize the importance of global public health going forward. Perhaps we will rethink what we choose to do together to protect public health.

Before the crisis, “Big Pharma” was viewed by the public as a source of evil and mistrust. Now, many big pharma companies are cooperating as never before to develop vaccines and therapies. Perhaps, if those efforts actually succeed, attitudes toward pharmaceutical company will restart in more positive ways.

This crisis is changing us all. We cannot judge what is now becoming possible by the categories of the past. Categories coerce. The economic categories and business models of the past won’t necessarily work in the post-outbreak economy. In today’s political climate, categories dumb down the way we talk about ideas and each other. Categorical thinking moves us away from understanding the bigger picture. It lacks context. Categories channel us toward certainty, but away from clarity.

Post-outbreak, we will all need full-spectrum thinking to seek clarity across gradients of possibility—outside, across, beyond, or maybe even without any boxes or categories—while resisting false certainty. As you listen to COVID-19 crisis reporting, seek out those who have clarity, but avoid those with certainty.

Full-spectrum thinking has the potential to diffuse polarities, to reveal that our differences are not as stark as they seem through the narrow lens of categories. Full-spectrum thinking helps us find the multi-dimensional ways in which things are connected—not just the ways in which they are distinct from each other.

Here’s what you can do to thrive in the zero-based reopening:


Look for examples of narrow categorical thinking or labeling that limit opportunity. Certainly, there are cases where your organization and your fellow workers are judging too soon or labeling too narrowly. Expose the limits of categorical thinking in your organization, in your industry. Seek out categorical thinking and correct it wherever you can—or at least point out the limitations.


Encourage and reward full-spectrum thinking. Full-spectrum thinking will allow more people to be future-ready, more able to make sense out of new opportunities and threats. Full-spectrum thinking will allow us to make a better future through efforts like training and executive development programs for corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and the military.


Think NOW, FUTURE, NEXT. Looking back from the future makes it much easier to see full spectrum. The present is just too noisy—so frighteningly noisy during a crisis. Most organizations and most leaders think NOW, NEXT, Future; they don’t spend much time at all in Future. Full-spectrum thinkers move from Now to FUTURE, and then back to Next. Many organizations with which I work use something like Now, Next, Future as a strategy framework. Others use similar models like Horizon 1, Horizon 2, Horizon 3. Try changing the order: Horizon 1, Horizon 3, then back to Horizon 2. This is a simple but profound re-ordering. Since it is actually easier to see where things are going if you think ten or more years ahead, it is much better to take this approach than to inch your way out from the present.

Categories won’t go away, and simple categories will work fine when they accurately match a new situation to an old one. But simplistic categories, labels, generalizations, and stereotypes will be exposed for what they are: sloppy and dangerous. Racism, sexism, and other prejudices will be much harder to justify in a world of everyday full-spectrum thinking skills and capabilities. Future-back thinking will help us all be better prepared for the next pandemic, the next future shock.


Create and conduct spectrum diversity training for all staff. Diversity correlates with innovation. The diversity issues of social equity are not resolved, but the prospect for innovation introduces another kind of conversation. I believe that people and organizations should continue pressure for social equity across all kinds of diversity. We can now make a separate yet complimentary argument that spectrum diversity will increase innovation, performance, and growth. Growth may be a more powerful motivator than guilt.

We need to grow in our understanding of the increasingly novel future, and the COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to do just that. The zero-based reopening is a chance to start over. Unfortunately for some businesses, the choice will be between starting from zero or dying.


Bob Johansen has been helping organizations around the world prepare for and shape the future for over 30 years. He is a distinguished fellow at Institute for the Future (IFTF), the world's longest running nonprofit organization dedicated to uncovering the critical new insights that lead to action for a more sustainable future, where he founded its program of research on emerging technology horizons. He has written numerous books on leadership and change management and leads forecasting workshops for a wide range of corporations, including P&G, Kellogg’s, Disney, and Intel. His new book is Full-Spectrum Thinking: How to Escape Boxes in a Post-Categorical World. Learn more at