In general I believe that planning is essential. The only real alternative to planning is not responsiveness and flexibility but chaos. The people who plan are much better at improvising than the people who don’t. But can one plan in such times as these?
Whatever kind of organisation we lead we face an unusually high degree of uncertainty right now. No-one knows if the curve of the economic recovery will be fast and steep or slow and relatively flat. There might be a second wave of coronavirus that is worse than the first or we might keep it under control and come up with a vaccine relatively quickly. We might reach a new deal with the EU post-Brexit that minimises cost and disruption but the opposite seems as or more likely. The vast majority of people and organisations face an uncertain economic future in which unnecessary spending is not at all attractive. All this leaves confidence low.
Many organisations are not yet able to operate in anything like the “normal” way and still have many working remotely, from home, in temporary arrangements. It is not clear when it will be possible to return to “normality” or whether there will ever be such a return. Do we really need the large, expensive offices we had become used to thinking essential? Has the crisis demonstrated their dispensability? I suspect the jury is out on this one for most as well.
Can we plan in an environment like this?
I think it depends on what one means by planning. If we mean, determine a set of outcomes for five years’ time, linked to a set of targets and a raft of specific activities then most probably we cannot. But the traditional comprehensive strategy is not the only way to plan and, in any case, it brings with it the risk that you become insufficiently flexible.
I realise that in times when one is struggling with an unprecedented set of challenges and every situation is different there are dangers in offering rather generalised advice. I do think there are some things organisations still can and perhaps should do – but please take this as a stimulus to your own thoughts and glean from it whatever you find helpful. Under the pressure of recent circumstances it is quite likely that you have spent more time firefighting and keeping the show on the road and less time than usual in thinking about the bigger picture. It is, I suggest, crucial not to let this happen.
In voluntary sector bodies, board and executive might have talked less than they normally do because of the state of emergency. It seems to me more important than ever that trustees and non-execs play their part and are involved in conversations about what is happening and going to happen. It is crucial to emphasise common cause and to make use of all the wisdom available. Be intentional and be deliberate. The overarching principle is that the key to survival is adaptiveness. This is achieved by paying attention to three imperatives: doing things right, doing right things, defining rightness.
Doing things right means understanding what is ‘best’ now (in the immediately presenting world). Currently this might involve a determination to resist any tendency to think that we will just go with the flow or think purely pragmatically now and sort things out properly later. We may well choose to do things that we know or hope will be temporary but we need to remember that habits form quickly and that we might be stuck with the consequences of ill-considered decisions for a long time. We need to make things work as well as possible now.
Doing right things means thinking about our potential responses to what is happening in the world and defining a path of greatest apparent resilience to all possibilities. Our ability to predict the future might be significantly reduced but we can save ourselves from being forced to react quickly to circumstances without adequate preparation by working on scenarios and our preferred response to them. We can ask ourselves, “What will it mean if? What will we do if? What is happening that we must be aware of or respond to? What is happening that we might take advantage of?” Reality might still surprise but this kind of wargaming can help us to make better decisions under the pressure of events. Some will do this routinely anyway – but many do not.
The long-term still matters and to build for it you may well need to be more innovative and more experimental than you are used to being. You might need to try things, to pilot new ideas and, in a sense, see what works. But do it deliberately, make choices, give things some time to work or not, keep the best. You can still know where you are heading, but you might need to get better at building the road as you go, or improvising in response to what seems to have life and traction.
Defining rightness means thinking about what is REALLY important to us (who are we?) and then conditioning our responses to the other two questions to get the best balance for us. By which I mean, you need, more than ever, to have a sense of who you are and what you hope to become over whatever period makes sense to you – perhaps the next five to ten years. Your timescale and many of your specific plans might well need to change. They would probably have to anyway. One charity I work with had only just agreed to ambitious targets for its work in Africa in the period to 2025 and the income to support it when the crisis began. I applaud that organisation for reaffirming the level of ambition expressed in that vision whilst acknowledging that it might take longer to get there and require tactics it hadn’t hitherto considered or expected.
I know that many organisations will also have to make the difficult decision to cut costs, close centres and make staff redundant. Others will be caught up in a fight for survival and find it almost impossible to think past the really short-term. But if you possibly can, keep the vision before you, even if the road to achieving it lies through tough times. Organisations need to be moving towards something, need forward momentum and that requires some kind of plan, one that, more than ever, combines intention with flexibility and creativity.
With thanks to Professor John Beckford for his input on this one
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