What’s your planning timeframe?

If you’re lucky enough to get some time off during the hazy days of summer, ideally near a body of water, one of the great joys is not planning beyond the next paddle in the canoe, or the next ice cream cone.

Oddly, one of the characteristics of a crisis – the opposite of the lazy lakeside life – is that we are likewise focused primarily on the next thing, rather than the long-term.

But whether you’re just coming back from a lake or just raising your head from the tumult of the past few months, it’s time to think further ahead than just the next few months.

Wait, didn’t we have a plan once?

The problem of course is that the pandemic and the economic upheaval that’s resulted has made a lot of our existing plans irrelevant. Organizations have been frantically moving operations virtual, cancelling or rescheduling events, and addressing immediate stakeholder needs related to the pandemic or its effects.

Some of the things we’ve planned for the future are simply scrapped. Others are in the future but the workback schedules already loom large. For instance, if you’re recreating a major event for the fall, but doing it virtually, even though you’re working towards something that’s happening later the demands on you are already urgent.

As for anything else, well, who’s had the time? The energy? The bandwidth?

It’s time for some perspective

However, it’s neither healthy nor wise to stay in short-term thinking for too long. You’ll risk:

  • Spending your time on things that won’t turn out to be important
  • Losing out on later opportunities because you didn’t make the right investments now
  • Confusing or disengaging the staff, volunteers, board members, collaborators who are looking to you or your organization for guidance

On the flip side, obviously it’s foolish to put together a detailed 5-year plan right now (and some would argue that’s rarely a great use of time). Projecting activities and outcomes for Q3 of 2021 is a fool’s errand at the best of times, and these are not those times.

So what’s the right timeframe?

If I’m suggesting that it’s important to think beyond your October conference, how long would it be reasonable to plan for, given the uncertainty in the environment? As a starting point, I’d suggest something like two years, and here’s why:

  • This timeframe enables you to think about projects that are longer-term, without being too overwhelming.
  • You would have enough time that you have to grapple with some of your larger strategic issues – like, where’s your revenue coming from, and will it continue to come over the next couple of fiscal years?
  • It matches the pace of significant change; it gives you some time to see some projects through and assess their impact.
  • You would be triggered to think about your 2021 meetings and start to develop some contingency plans – which I know many organizations haven’t done yet.
  • It gives you enough time to consider a few alternative scenarios – important when the outside world is subject to so much change.
  • Since it does not seem likely that the pandemic will have been completely resolved before two years, so this timeframe aligns with the notion of a “new normal.”

And please note that I’m assuming you’ve done a financial analysis to see what the impact of the pandemic might have on your finances and cash flow. If not, go do that right away. If you are experiencing a cash crunch, especially absent adequate reserves, you will likely have a tighter time horizon and far more focused priorities.

But most importantly, a somewhat longer time horizon will trigger you to have the right (virtual) conversations about where you need to direct your attention and set priorities beyond the next few weeks.

Plan with uncertainty, not despite it

Obviously, the unknowns still loom large. There may be some very daunting possibilities to contemplate. So I’m hoping that any planning you do will be highly flexible. Don’t dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s in advance. When I say two years, I don’t mean a plan for each of the next 24 months in granular detail. I’m talking more about the switch that gets pulled to force you to have intelligent discussions about the challenges you are facing and how you will address them.

If you’d like to discuss your approach to planning during a pandemic, please get in touch.

Photo by Braxton Stuntz on Unsplash.

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com 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.