Maps will help us get through a wilderness

The original version of this post had a technical issue; apologies if you’ve had to re-search for the link. I suspect many of you are seeing the limitations of a business continuity plan by now, whether you had one in place or not. If you look at their structure, they’re designed for a short, sharp shock.

And while the pandemic is a sharp shock indeed, it’s not going to be so short.

So what are you going to do? Completely replicate the processes that got you to your strategic and tactical plan, operational plan, and your budget in the next, say, week? While you’ve just abruptly transitioned to working from home and you aren’t totally sure what to do with your on-site server and what do you mean there are security issues with Zoom and everything else?

Well, no.

A plan, but a fast one

What most organizations probably need to do is something that tries to fold the swirling environment into the thinking behind your existing plans and processes. More expansive than a business continuity plan; broader than a crisis communication plan; more oriented to immediate action than a strategic plan.

This could be used for board decision-making, for ongoing management, and for leadership reflection. There’s a lot packed in here, but nobody is writing a novel right now. Maybe 5 pages, including graphs.

There should be a term for this kind of document, but if there is, I haven’t found one yet. So let’s call it a Responsive Streamlined Action Plan (RSAP), maybe? A resiliency plan, perhaps?

What it shares with a business continuity plan is that it’s a bit of a fill in the blanks exercise – make it a template to make it easier for yourself. But what it has in common with a strategic plan is that it should demonstrate the logical connections between what you believe to be most important – your mission, your values – and the specific actions you take under current conditions.

Whatever you call it, here is what I would suggest it should contain to get the key elements of your thinking right now in one spot – to help you with clarity, alignment, and action.

Start at the top

Start with guiding principles – vision, mission, and values. If you don’t refer to them in this moment, chuck them out; they clearly don’t matter to you. This is why you have them. Remind everyone what you’re all there to do (mission), and what you aren’t willing to trade off to do it (values). Don’t take them for granted.

What do you think is going on in the world right now?

Identify your assumptions about the current environment – not the assumptions that directly drive a financial model (e.g. % renewing members) but the kinds of assumptions you get from reading the paper and applying judgement. What is the story you’re telling yourself about the outside world? On what basis are you making any plans at all? Such as:

  • We assume that drastic physical distancing measures will be in place at least until {date}
  • We assume that a return to business as usual will extend at least [x] months beyond {date above}
  • We assume the economy/our industry/our sector will be affected {in these ways}
  • We assume our members will be affected {in these ways}
  • We assume our sponsors will be affected  {in these ways}
  • We are concerned about {these less clear possibilities} but have not yet assumed they will happen
  • Likewise, we are hopeful that {these less clear positive developments}, but we are not taking them as a given
  • We are concerned about {these things} which remain significant unknowns

Remember, this isn’t about you quite yet. It’s about the world as you see it around you. You will not be right about all of these. But you should capture your thinking right now, because is the thinking that drives your decision-making.

Another reason to actually write these down is to bring disconnects to the surface. If you have a board member who thinks things will be – snap! – back to normal within a few weeks, and you’re looking a year out, then that’s the discussion you need to have before you get into action planning.

Reiterate (or reassess) your strategies

Take a quick look at your strategies. Do you need to seriously upend them as a result of the pandemic – or do they remain a true statement of what’s important to your success? Was there something missing within your strategies? Something you took for granted?

What tactics do you need to put in the foreground within your strategies? (Hint: those things that have been keeping you up at night? They should be there.)

This is not a wholesale reinvention of your strategic plan. But, particularly if you see some strategies that you are going to just ignore for the time being, it’s important to say so. And conversely, if some strategies are all the more important in the current context, that gives you a framework for the activities you are undertaking.

OK, so now what?

And now it’s time to lay out your plan for the post-business continuity moment – you’re continuing, but to do what, exactly? All of this is driven by your strategies and your values, as well as your assumptions about the external environment.

But don’t jump to activities too quickly. Start with your assumptions about your own operations. What scenarios are you contemplating?

  • How long will your business model hold up under drastic physical distancing measures? What if they go on longer than you think?
  • Is it a given that your in-person events are cancelled? Or are you holding out some possibility that some might go ahead later in your year?
  • Do you expect members to continue to see value in membership? Are there conditions on that assumption – for instance, does that depend on their ability to pay, and does that in turn depend on economic conditions?
  • Are you going to prioritize keeping staff? Demonstrating value to members? Advocating for certain outcomes to government?

And then you can get to the stuff that most of us tend to start with: setting out some actions. What’s most important for you to do?

  • What actions are you taking? Couch these in your strategies (as revised). You’re still making choices to be successful, and that’s still strategy.
  • What are you going to do now to address the current situation, enable you to sustain operations and your business model, and position you for whatever you think is coming next?
  • What’s not so important any more? What’s going on ice? What’s getting postponed a year? What’s getting cut forever? Now is the time to streamline.

Consider a simple “stop, start, continue” model for this section. Or “foreground, background, parking lot.” Strip it down, and don’t pretend you know what you don’t know yet. There may be a bunch of things that you just have to figure out later, and that’s fine.

Talk about risk – beyond the obvious

What are the unknowns? These are a lot right now. Lay them out so you can adjust your plan as time goes on, and the unknowns become known.

What are the ways this could go sideways? You’re probably going to have to do a lot of new things on the fly. Note where that’s the case, where you find novelty and learning curves. Because that’s where executional risk lives.

Unfortunately, in a pandemic, prudence requires that you consider some negative possibilities. Staff productivity is likely to be reduced. At times it may be hard to find traction, especially on non-pandemic-related topics, with members, volunteers, partners, collaborators, sponsors, etc. And key personnel may be unavailable due to illness or caregiving so look at ways to backfill or double up on crucial knowledge or activities. This is time for compassion and empathy for everyone (including you).

Money is an outcome, not the starting point

Some jump here first. But the finances are an outcome of all that precedes. Too many organizations lead with the dollars. The whole point is that you need a narrative so that people understand why projections are what they are. If the assumptions change, maybe the projections change. Or maybe you understand why the projections were off from reality. (Tip: they’ll be off from reality. They always are, but especially now.)

If all you’re doing is jumping to numbers (or your board members want to), you will need to back up to the assumptions (financial and non-financial) that drive the numbers. They’re all baked in.

Super simple metrics – green and red

Leadership at a time like this isn’t about stretch goals. It’s about achievable, meaningful outcomes. Keep it simple, stick to what’s really important.

Do measure, but include both aims and warning signs – keep an eye on a (very) few metrics that will tell you you’re going in the right direction, but not (quite) blowing out the engine (yet).

What the document itself is and does

  • Note that it’s a living document, based on judgements and assessments made on the basis of rapidly changing current conditions.
  • Identify what would trigger it to be revised significantly.
  • Lay out a timeframe to come back to it. Every board meeting? Biweekly?

A tight document – NOT a long one

Now, does this sound like a painful exercise? Maybe. It will require incisive leadership.

Should this be a long, involved document? No!

The thing is, you already have this document. It’s just that it’s in your head. You already know what parts of your strategic plan are foreground and background, based on where you are spending your time right now. You already know the risks – that’s how you’re deciding what documents you need to review, with whom you need to be speaking… There are tacit assumptions about the future baked into every decision anyone in the organization is making, large and small.

But now more than ever, the board, staff, and volunteers have to be aligned to sustain a not-for-profit. And to pull that off, at some point you’ll need to move beyond a more ad hoc business continuity approach to bridge the gap with your strategic thinking, without pulling out a more comprehensive plan that was blissfully ignorant of the current reality.

You may feel like this needs updating as soon as the ink is dry. That’s fine. Print a copy, and start making your notes in the margins as you go.

If you’d like to talk about any of the above, please get in touch.

Photo by Muhammad Haikal Sjukri on Unsplash