We certainly hope that we are now travelling in a post pandemic world, having spent the best part of 3 years being disrupted across all areas of life by COVID. We all saw the unexpected arrival of a global pandemic, a dramatic increase in remote working, and a louder call for equity and inclusion in the workplace. Our global economy continues to experience turbulence. Leaders right now are trying to work out what the “new normal” actually is post COVID, with many authors on the subject settling on some sort of hybrid model of work that tries to balance a perceived conflict between organisational needs and personal preferences of staff. What seems to be emerging is increasingly being portrayed in the media as a confrontational “stand-off” where CEO’s are demanding a return to the office, and staff are crying out for maintaining a better life balance that they have experienced over the last few years. In many cases, workers have moved to regional areas are now facing even longer commutes if they want to continue working with their employers who quite happily allowed them to work during COVID remotely. My Gen Y son is, like many others, questioning why he has to return to the office when his role is largely online. The answer to him when he enquired – “the CEO has stated that the investment in city building infrastructure can’t sit empty so everyone has to come back to the office at least two days a week !”
As organisational life gets back into full swing there is an unsettled feel about returning to the ways we worked prior to the pandemic. Staff that had been trusted to work collaboratively and innovatively to adapt to a changed world are now being treated like they can’t be trusted or considered when it comes to working out what the new organisational world should look like. As leaders plan the future of their organisations, the majority of existing strategic plans had to be tossed out and rewritten. There wasn’t a single 2020 strategic plan that would have predicted a pandemic !
Which brings me to the topic of this article – strategic leadership and planning. If you are in leadership in today’s post COVID world it’s time to think differently. I’m a Gen X’er and have happily working in the consulting space delivering traditional strategic planning advice to clients for the best part of 20 years. What I learned through COVID is that traditional strategic planning is dead, however the need to plan strategically remains. Leaders still need to keep an eye to the future and plan towards that future, however some key changes in approach and shared leadership are needed. In our work with clients we have noticed the following key features of current strategic planning efforts.
The need for speed
Post COVID we expected leaders, driven by well-placed consideration for staff health and well-being, to take slow tentative steps towards restarting the workplace. Although tempting to ‘wait and see’, there is a compelling reason to move fast when it comes to the way the organisation should move forward in a post pandemic world. In uncertain times, speed matters more than perfection. It’s unlikely your plans will be perfect, and they will rapidly outdate. This is the new reality for us all. This implies an iterative approach for the future in leadership and planning, revisiting stages as the situation changes, and checking assumptions to ensure that they remain relevant. A well structured however nimble, forward planning approach will help leaders and staff create an advantage by moving fast but retaining the agility to learn and adapt as the situation changes. Structure partnered with agilty is the key to future strategic planning.
New value through innovation
Most Not for Profits operate on a very narrow definition of innovation that limits innovation to improvements on new products, services or technology. But innovation is much more – in a post COVID world innovation needs to evolve to become a consistent, ongoing execution of new value for stakeholders rather than attempt to define a static desired goal for some time off into a desired future. Leaders need to ask the question “What challenges can you as leaders see for your organisation, and how can you innovate to solve these challenges and embrace new opportunities.” And post COVID, the answer to this questions needs to become a team effort rather than just the job of the executive leadership.
Top Down and Bottom Up collaboration
During the last 3 years hierarchical accountabilities, structures and processes gave way to new expressions of collaboration and delegation. Traditional strategic planning pre pandemic often limited decision making to a small core subset of leadership. But innovation is a team sport, and often the bigger and more diverse the team, the better. Not for Profits are in a great position post COVID to leverage their whole staff to enhance innovation outcomes through teams. Agile strategic planning still chases vision through strategy, but the tools it uses combine the “top down” strategic leadership of the Board and Executive around stated purpose, values and goals for long term future orientation and goal setting with bottom up innovative strategy development by a much larger group of stakeholders across teams. This form of collaboration respects that the Board and Executive collaborate and ensure the WHY purpose and values of the organisation is not compromised, but allow for responsiveness and idea generation to come from the whole staff. This assures better buy in for ideas and direction, and creates strategic motivation, capacity and connection to the purpose and values for the whole staff as well.
Experimentation was also often a feature of organisations as they scrambled to make their businesses work during the pandemic period. Why walk away from all those new skills that were exercised so effectively in many organisations? Utilising experimentation is actually the fastest and cheapest way to reduce risk and ultimately deliver new value to an organisation. Strategic planning is not a one-time event. It is an iterative process, and innovation strategy requires a precise balance between form and freedom. This usually involves a four step approach:
1. Start broad and develop as many new strategy ideas as possible using teams formed across the whole organisation.
2. Grow those ideas by clustering and vetting them, so that they are prioritised based on their potential and executability.
3. Prioritise and select the best of these strategies through experimentation and adaptation.
4. Implement then adopt new strategies over time – when existing strategies are completed they can be retired from the Agile Strategic Plan and form part of the business as usual operational plan. Over time new strategies will come into the plan.
Agile strategic leadership and planning is fundamentally different from traditional strategic planning, which often moves from idea directly to execution. Now more than ever, Not for Profits are dealing with significant unknowns, and experimentation is the fastest and cheapest way to reduce risk and ultimately deliver new value.The journey of strategic planning as a tool that can move your organisation to a new state of adding value is far from over, its just been renovated to learn from the immediate past, leveraging the learning to adapt to an uncertain future.