Strategy in Troubled Times

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These are such strange and troubled times. The priority is saving lives, then saving livelihoods. Organisations have had to react to the sudden disruption of ‘business as usual’, working out how to protect their people and sustain their finances sufficiently to survive. It’s a crisis, and it’s had to be managed, however imperfectly. And like after any shock, there are phases of different emotions, energy and focus, from initial urgent action to worry about the future and experiencing the stress of uncertainty. The two dominant questions seem to be, “When will we get back to normal?” and “Will my business survive?”

What’s the point of investing time, energy and mental bandwidth in considering an organisation’s strategy at a time like this? Surely strategic planning has no value: who knows what the economic situation will be in the next 6 months, let alone in 3 years’ time? Few organisations will have considered in their strategic planning the risk to their business of a pandemic of this magnitude of impact (whilst the global risk was recognised as likely to happen at some stage, such an eventuality with so major an impact was unlikely to feature in the 3 to 5 year time horizon of most organisations’ strategic plans). Indeed, maybe strategic planning has had its day: even the most sophisticated strategic plans are unlikely to have considered a risk with an impact as off-the-scale as the current pandemic and seemingly unlikely in normal business horizons.

However, some organisations have adopted a different approach to strategic planning than the traditional ‘top-down intensive project to produce a glossy document’. They have realised that strategy needs to be live and dynamic; they need to be able to anticipate and address challenges and opportunities as they arise, and they have invested in developing the strategic capabilities, processes and confidence to enable them to be strategically agile. Enabling and encouraging strategic thinking, engaging people effectively in strategy development, decision-making, and implementation, and leading the organisation in developing and applying these capabilities and embedding it within the organisation’s culture: all strengthen the ability of an organisation to be able to tackle the challenges of change. Even for the risks that organisations don’t predict and can’t control, if they have the ability and confidence to react, adapt and act strategically they are more likely to be able to deal with the threats – and opportunities – from such situations.

People – and organisations – will differ in how they respond to the current situation, depending on their outlook. Some will be resigned to trying to ride out the crisis; many will be waiting for a return to ‘normal’ so they can try to resume what they were doing previously. Others will be waiting to see what happens, perhaps planning how they can react quickly to what develops. But there will also be some who take the opportunity to be proactive in considering what their future might be and how they can help to shape this.

It seems unlikely that the post-pandemic future will be identical to the previous ‘normal’. Some of the behaviours that have changed might persist – is it really essential to travel halfway across the country for every meeting? Values might change, with an altered appreciation of what matters and what isn’t so important after all. Finances, both business and personal, could be significantly constrained, at least in the short term, and society and politics will evolve too. How much different and over what timescale remains to be seen.

The more significant the changes, the greater the need for organisations to re-think their futures, and the more fundamental the strategic questioning needs to be. Just restoring ‘business as usual’ – even gradually and with adjustments – will not be enough: organisations will need to reframe how they see themselves, and in some cases reinvent what they offer and how they operate.

Every organisation is different, and there is no single ‘best’ approach as to how to work out what to do. But asking challenging questions and having ‘rich conversations’ to answer these will enable people in the organisation to come to a shared understanding and make sense of where their organisation is, where it’s going, and what they need to do to help it achieve this. Now is the time for organisations to start to think strategically about what their future might be.

Questions for Changing Times

  • Who are we, and who do we serve? What’s our purpose? Why do we exist?
  • What are we good at (and what aren’t we good at)?
  • What can we offer? Why is this of value, and to whom? What should we offer?
  • How do we do this? Can we make this work?
  • What’s our business model, and how do we operate it (effectively, efficiently, profitably, equitably, sustainably)?
  • What do we need (people, skills, resources, finance)?
  • What might happen, what are the risks, and how can we cope?
  • How do we strengthen our capabilities to survive and success in the future?

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