Strategy in an age of uncertainty

When things are uncertain, ambiguous, volatile, complex, it can be tempting to think that it makes no sense to think about association strategy. Why spend a lot of time investing in a complicated strategic plan if you know that your world is changing, and fast?

Well, first of all, let’s remind ourselves that a complicated set-in-stone strategic plan isn’t at all the same thing as a strategy.

I’d completely agree that locking yourself into something irrevocable, and then planning it down to the last detail for the next five years, is foolish. But that would be true under any circumstances. A strategy is a set of choices, not a set of handcuffs.

The military – from whom a lot of strategic thinking for organizations has come over the years – has a term, VUCA. It stands for Volatile (there’s little stability), Uncertain (you’re lacking information), Complex (there are many forces and actors), and Ambiguous (reality has multiple interpretations). Maybe it can apply to your situation – or at least parts of it.

And we don’t have to go very far to understand that circumstances aren’t all that normal in many ways.

But the problem is, you do need to set a strategy, if only to align activities and resources in some direction that makes sense.


Clearly Articulate Your North Star.

Don’t just drift along. Know what your preferred future is. Don’t let yourself just get buffeted by the world.

It’s not good enough to say, for instance, that you serve your members.

What does that mean? How will they be well-served?

What are the changes in regulation, education, working or business conditions that need to be in place for your members to really succeed? What is your long-term blueprint for your profession or sector?

This kind of vision is not your advocacy program for the next year, or your list of potential webinars… it’s far bigger than that. It’s fundamentally understanding what you are building towards on behalf of your members, as broadly as you can reasonably define that.

Take Care Of Your Business Model.

How do you have a business model that means you can be around to make all of that happen? How do you get paid in order to sustain yourself? Who sees enough tangible visible appreciable value in your work to pay you money for it – members, non-members, industry, others?

You might have a sense of what you want things to look like in the future for the sector overall, but you still need someone to pay you so you can survive – dues, fees, sponsorship revenues, and so on. So you need to be delivering value to people who can and will pay you for it, now and in the future.

Get Your House In Order.

You have to organize for this.

Some things take a long time to build, and if you get rid of them you can’t get them back. It takes years and years to build up goodwill, but only a few weeks to lose it. So you won’t want to turn on a dime on things that really benefit from a conservative approach.

But at the same time most of us need to get more nimble, get more strategically skilled… The idea is to be light on your feet.

And whether it’s something you need to move on quickly or over the long term – just because it’s politically unpalatable doesn’t mean you shy away from it.

Face Down Some Scary Scenarios.

What are the things that would scare the heck out of you if they happened? Let’s not be complacent.

Things that are low probability could still become reality. Look at things that are unlikely – or unthinkable – but still possible.

Regulators probably aren’t going to take your exam away – probably – but what if they did? (Even if you think they would regret it in the end, they might.) Members probably aren’t going to abandon you in droves overnight. But they could. What then?

Think about those alternate futures – and do it now, when you can more easily do it without panicking.

If you’d like to talk about how we can help you figure out your strategy in a VUCA world, please get in touch.

Photo by Greg Rakozy via Unsplash, used with permission. 

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.