October 02, 2020
“Under uncertainty, traditional approaches to strategic planning can be downright dangerous.” This admonition from the Harvard Business Review was written well before Covid-19. What are the traditional approaches referred to in this article? They include any planning activity built on the assumption that we can predict, plan, and control the events and circumstances that stand between where we are now and the desired strategic destination. If something like Covid-19 does not crack the illusion of control, nothing will.
I had the opportunity to conduct a series of check-in sessions with nonprofit executive directors soon after the first wave of Covid shut-downs and cut-backs. One topic was the status of the organization’s strategic plan. The responses revealed a range of assumptions regarding the form and purpose of a strategic plan. “Our plan immediately became obsolete,” said one executive director. Another commented that “our plan had to be revised.” These responses emanate from the “strategy as plan” school of thought. In other words, the conditions of Covid-19 prevented both organizations from completing the tasks they had set out for themselves.
My favorite response was this: “our plan is helping us stay focused on what matters most.” This response emanates from the “strategy as grounding” school of thought. The difference between a plan and a strategy is that a plan documents what you need to do; a strategy provides the anchoring points that allow you to make the necessary and difficult choices without violating the fundamentals of your long-term strategy. What are those strategy fundamentals?
• A deep understanding of to whom you matter most and why
• A clear sense of where you fit within your domain of operation, relative to others providing similar services
• Clarity around mission priorities, core values, and bedrock principles
There is nothing pleasant or easy about crisis planning. And while we cannot control the uncontrollable or anticipate the unexpected, there is nothing stopping us from engaging in the conversations that clarify and solidify the fundamentals of our strategy. Difficult decisions may be called for but are made less contentious when crisis planning is built on the foundation of a strong sense of who you and where you are trying to go.
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