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Adaptable and agile: A framework for CEOs to level up strategy and organizational capacity through COVID-19 and beyond

By Alli Marshall

As an association CEO, you are leading and navigating through a truly unprecedented era of global change and uncertainty. Delivering value to members and other key stakeholders, all while keeping an eye on surviving and thriving through COVID-19 and beyond, demands levels of agility and adaptability which are also likely unprecedented for your association and personal leadership.

As a mentor of mine liked to say, “I wish I could give you a hero cookie, a gold star and a parade” for your efforts, fighting the good fight on behalf of your many stakeholders. Instead, what I will do is to provide a step-by-step practical framework to ensure that your association rises up with the organizational capacity needed to meet the strategic challenges, conundrums, and even comforts of our current times.


In planning processes, strategy and organizational capacity are generally treated as two distinct steps, usually one after the other. The board, CEO and some internal leaders work on strategy, and then it comes back to the CEO and key leaders to work with the organization to operationalize it. Sometimes this operationalizing step includes assessing where there are capacity gaps, followed by running a change management process to fill them. However, the required capacities and associated gaps are often not explicitly surfaced, and there can be large differentials between who the organization is today and who they need to be to succeed with strategy execution.

This “series” treatment of strategy creation followed by organizational capacity had some warts on it in B.C. (before COVID-19) times, and even more so in D.C. (during COVID-19) times. My perspective from supporting teams and leaders is that organizational attention/energy is the most scarce and valuable resource in D.C. times. The agile and adaptable approach that follows allows you to break down what could be a significant change effort into more manageable chunks. You and your team will have the opportunity to register wins, celebrate success and keep your spirits high as fuel for the continuing journey ahead, all while evolving and improving the resiliency of your association.


Figure 1 illustrates the iterative three-step process to address the “what?” “so what?” and “now what?” of change for your association.

To increase engagement, understanding and buy-in, the framework is designed for you to work on collaboratively with your internal team, and is also flexible for you to adapt for other audiences (e.g., board, volunteer base). While there is no requirement to use all of the suggested areas of exploration for each step, this process will be most successful if you do not skip ahead through the steps. Allow yourself and your team to feel a sense of “good enough” completion on each step before moving on to the next.

At the same time, don’t get too bogged down, as it’s crucial to get to step three/“now what?” so that you can start taking action and generating momentum. Also imperative in step three is to pick only one manageable and meaningful next step to work on. Because this is iterative, when you feel a sense of completion with step three, you have the chance to go back through the process again, building on the gains you have solidified from your first pass.

This process is a simplification of the “teamwork sprints” that I have been delivering D.C.

In addition to offering a more realistic and holistic perspective of the interplay between strategy and organizational capacity, this approach is deeply rooted in the practicalities of how change actually works for humans – individually and collectively. I am a Certified Narrative Coach Practitioner, and have drawn on the many contributions of Dr. David Drake (www.themomentinstute.com) to create this framework.


Figure 1: Adaptable and agile framework for CEOs to level up strategy and organizational capacity.
This framework is adapted from the Reflective Practice Model of Rolfe et al (2001)

Step 1: “What?”

Situational awareness: get more grounded in the facts and data of what you do and don’t know to be true. Increase your team’s tolerance to be present with the reality of “what is” today.


•   Start where you are – take stock of the “facts” of what you know to be true – internally and externally – differentiate between data, guesses/hypotheses and assumptions.

•   How clear are you on strategic direction for your organization today – what’s the status of your strategic planning?

•   What do you know to be true about your members?

•   What has the COVID-19 journey been like for your team so far? What do you feel you have lost? What are you going in search of?

•   If you’ve completed a scenario planning exercise (see Weiss & Primdahl in this issue) you will have completed some robust outside-in analysis, and have some key early warning events monitoring in place.

•   If not, Figure 2 includes a framework for thinking about what is happening outside the walls of your organization – which includes industry participants as well as broader macro-environmental trends.

•   Talk through major areas of uncertainty, the “known unknowns,” using a tool like the Johari Window framework.

Bonus: free up organizational attention to go on the journey by asking team members to identify non-value additive work (some of my clients refer to this as “fake work”) or activities that could be reduced or eliminated entirely.

Figure 2: Nine forces external situational analysis tool
For more information on nine forces analysis, see Fleisher, C.S. and Bensoussan, B.E. (2007). Business and Competitive A

Step 2: “So What?”

Importance and aspiration: get more connected with what is most important and valuable for your organization and your members.


•   What ideas do you have about what “winning” looks like for your association D.C. – what are your aspirations D.C., and have they changed from B.C. times?

•   Who are your most important stakeholders and what is the value that you deliver to them? You might use Clayton Christensen’s “Jobs to Be Done” framework to brainstorm on the critical elements of value that members are hiring you for D.C.

•   What organizational values are most important for you to stay true to D.C.?

•   Are there key strategic shifts that you have already identified or that are becoming apparent through your discussions?

•   How are you framing opportunities and risks?

•   What is truly at stake for you and your membership right now?

Bonus: ask your team members to engage with this thought experiment question: “What if this was the single-greatest time of opportunity for our association and its members?” Do a lookback brainstorm on how you would have shifted and engaged with opportunities and risks D.C. in order to make this “once in a lifetime opportunity” future a reality.

Figure 3: Integrated approach to change
Modified after Dr. David Drake’s iBEAM Integrative Development Tool. Visit www.themomentinstitute.com for more

Step 3: “Now What?”

Practise, refine and integrate: Pick one thing to work on and learn from, and then celebrate and integrate your gains.


•   What does your organization most need to clarify, uncover, learn or practise to move forwards?

•   What feels most like the “crux” of forward progress right now?

•   Is there an historical strength for your association that is in opposition to the way you need to show up D.C.?

•   Is there a change you could take on that you think would have an “unlocking” or resonant effect for your association?

•   What is the most important next step for your team?

Suggested approach: once you choose your one thing/most important next step to take action on, use the integrated development change tool outlined in Figure 3 to flesh out all four of the required elements for successful change: a clear aspiration, no more than one or two simple behaviour shifts, one or two shifts in environment (which can include systems, processes, meeting habits and protocols, physical and digital environment, relational environment) and, finally, mindset – the story you will tell yourselves collectively to make it easier to achieve your aspiration.


•   Build in opportunities to learn as you go – revisit and revise your version of Figure 3 as needed.

•   Give yourselves a deadline, ideally three to six weeks, to make progress, while resisting distractions and staying focused on this one thing.

•   Then, reflect on the journey:

    o What has changed the most for you?

    o What can you do now that you could not do, or could not do as well, before?

    o How will the changes you have made benefit you and your stakeholders?

    o How do you see yourselves differently now?

    o What would you like to give yourselves a pat on the back for in this process?

    o What will help you to sustain this change?

After you have celebrated your success, iterate back to begin again and continue your evolution as the association who seized COVID-19 times as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!  

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