Strategic planning during uncertainty

Paralyzed in a pandemic: How strategic planning can help in uncertainty

Times seem uncertain but don’t let that stop you from continuing forward in your organizations strategic planning process.

It is hard to imagine a time in recent history with more uncertainty for businesses than right now – the election cycle, the lingering COVID pandemic, the outcry for social justice, the erratic stock market, and the list could go on.

Many people react by waiting for more certainty in order to plan, to make decisions, or to move forward. Some companies are wisely holding on to cash and delaying capital expenditures, however others are also setting aside their strategic planning, which may prove to be a dangerous decision.

There are a few issues with waiting for more stability in order to proceed with strategic planning as an organization.

Why you should not wait for more certainty

Your company is treading water: While your operations may still be humming along, the important, non-urgent things are not being addressed because people are waiting for direction. When your people don’t know what to do, they either: 1) do nothing extra (most likely) or 2) do their own thing and go in different directions.

Increased stress: Employees are already stressed and on edge. A lack of clarity about the future of the business only adds to that stress. In uncertain times, people need strong leadership and clear direction. A lack of clarity about where your organization is going only adds to the stress people already feel.

There will be less and less certainty in the new normal: The desire for certainty is a common human condition, but one that we have less and less control over in this VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – world, which has been proven by the COVID epidemic. You will be waiting a long time for certainty!

With certainty, opportunity is gone: When there is no risk, there is no opportunity. In order to grow, businesses must take calculated risks when they don’t fully know the answer. In this environment of change and uncertainty, there is plenty of opportunity in the marketplace. Organizations that “hunker down” will not be the ones that emerge the strongest on the other side.

Instead of waiting for more certainty, leaders can take a different approach, ‘Be Proactive’, as championed by well-known author, Stephen Covey. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey argues we need to figure out what we can influence and then seek to proactively influence rather than become victims of the forces around us. While Covey approached this as a principle of individual success, it rings true for organizations and is more important now than ever.

Change your reactive mindset to a proactive one: “There is no point in planning or setting goals right now because who knows what will happen!” to “There’s a lot that is up in the air, but here are some things that we can do.”

Five ways to proactively continue your organization’s strategic planning

Analyze the current and future situation: Now is not the time to ignore or set problems aside. Effective organizations need a way to identify the real issues. Once identified, determine a way to prioritize which ones must be dealt with first. All issues are not equal or equally urgent. Ask yourself, what are the problems your organization is currently facing? What are the projected issues, risks, and impacts to your business? Which of them are most likely?

Define assumptions: As we think about the future, what assumptions are we are making? Clearly define the “leaps of faith” – no matter how small they are – and consider the implications of things not going how you expect. For example, if we assume interest rates will remain near zero for the next two years, what does that mean for our plan? And how would things change if there was a major interest rate hike?

Scenario plan: Based on the most likely issues, risks, and impacts to your business, think about a few of the most likely scenarios. Then define a high level plan for each of those most likely scenarios.

Define desired outcomes and be proactive: Work as a team to define the objectives and key results (OKRs) for your organization and then figure out what is within your control to do. For example, you determine it is important for you to finish development of a new product despite significant budget cuts. What is within your influence to do to meet that objective despite the setback?

Test ideas and take calculated risks: As startups have learned with the uncertainty of new product offerings, it is best to test ideas in an iterative way rather than taking big risks to time and money. Learn to think like a startup and prove ideas in small, iterative tests.

In summary

It seems the “new normal” of our world is increasing uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean organizations should stop planning for their future. Figure out what is in your control and push forward with proactive strategic planning for your organization.

Contact Daniel White using the information below to learn more about strategic planning.

Daniel White

Senior Consultant
Org. Development & Family Business Services

Daniel White assists organizations with their organizational development needs, including strategic and operational planning, leadership development, and employee engagement efforts. He has worked with a wide range of industries, including construction, healthcare, manufacturing, banking, not-for-profits, and government organizations. He has also worked internationally as an organizational development consultant, serving organizations in Bolivia, Guatemala and Ghana.

Prior to advising organizations, Daniel worked in not-for-profit leadership and operations, directing projects with clients such as the US Department of State and the United Nations Population Fund. He has been published in Fast Company and several academic journals, and he has presented at a number of national conferences.

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