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In case of uncertainty, break glass: Practical planning for challenging times

By Meredith Low

If you’re like many association leaders, in 2020 you made decisions at a breakneck speed for months on end: how to operate remotely, whether, when and how to shift events from in-person to online, how to keep your board engaged during a pandemic, how to support your members through all the challenges they themselves were facing.

But, if you’re like many association leaders, you have also deferred other decisions. Some of your biggest questions about events, programming and staffing, especially more than a few months out, may seem unanswerable right now. The external environment with respect to the pandemic and the economy remains volatile. It’s difficult to have future-oriented, open-ended discussions by videoconference, and perhaps your board isn’t so strategy-oriented at the best of times. Maybe you know some of the things you have to talk about won’t be all that fun, either.

So, there is something of a backlog in strategic discussions among associations right now. But at some point, and probably soon, it will be time to look farther down the road. And that may seem more than a bit daunting.

The good news is there are ways to plan even despite the uncertain, ambiguous, messy times we are finding ourselves in.

WHAT ARE YOU FACING DOWN?

During the Think Tank sessions held in the summer and fall as part of CSAE’s Unprecedented conference, we asked participants what they are facing right now, and here’s what they said:

•   Their members’ own sustainability may be threatened by the pandemic and recession.

•   They’re seeing major business model challenges, with actual or potential drops in membership, events, sponsorship, etc., and may need to rethink the association’s core value.

•   They have operational challenges of taking both events and office work virtual.

•   It’s difficult to make decisions about 2021 (particularly conferences).

•   They worry about the implications of the loss of face-to-face events for networking and relationship building with and among members, stakeholders and the association itself.

That’s a lot!

Of course, not everyone is facing the same situation. And even during good times there are challenges. But the pandemic and its associated economic and social crises are raising the risk levels for everyone.

WHAT PLANNING IS POSSIBLE?

Can you do strategic planning in uncertain times? Yes. You still have choices to make, you have budgets to set, you have personnel and contracts and relationships to manage. Flailing is not a strategy, and it usually doesn’t feel very good. A flexible approach to planning is required, but some kind of plan is still important – and possible.

The process for a plan is broadly the same:

•   Set the context and the objectives for the plan – what questions do you need it to answer for you?

•   Stay focused on your guiding principles: your mission, vision and values.

•   Amass what you know, and determine if you need to gather new information – both about the outside world and your own organization.

•   Consider what will make you successful.

•   Make your choices, planning for the inherent risks and setting out how you will measure your success.

However, some aspects will look and feel quite different, for most:

•   Decision making in a virtual context requires different design and facilitation than in-person. What might have been one or two intense days of board discussion could turn into a sequence of meetings to keep focus. This can enable reflection and iteration not possible in the one-shot, in-person meetings.

•   There is always a lack of information; in uncertain times this is exacerbated. Old assumptions should be questioned, and old research may be less valuable. The external conditions continue to be highly fluid, and forecasting is extremely challenging.

•   Any plan you build should be adaptable. This may mean more frequent reviews, more systematic monitoring or environmental scanning to see if you should make a change, and more slack in your system to allow for shifts in direction (i.e. don’t overschedule, keep some reserves in the budget).

•   The planning timeframe should not be too long – this is not the time for a detailed five-year plan.

BRING THE UNCERTAINTY INTO YOUR PLAN

There are a number of tools that can be used either on a standalone basis, or in the context of a broader strategic planning process, which can help you deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity of decision-making, especially now.

Sensitivity analysis

Very often, projections are presented as a single number. Sensitivity analysis recognizes that there is uncertainty in your projections (whatever they are – member renewals, webinar registration, total revenues) and shows a range of potential outcomes. Typically, there’s an expected value, and a low and a high value.

This is a tool that should be used far more often across the association sector. Where sensitivity analysis gets interesting is in the “so what?” discussion. What difference would it make, between the different outcomes? What implications would they have?

Mathematically it’s usually very simple, although of course there are ways to add sophistication. For example, if you think you are going to get 80 per cent membership renewal and you hope you might get 85 per cent but are worried it could be as low as 70 per cent, then you would do a sensitivity analysis to see the range of outputs with those numbers. Then you can see the impact of your worst case (but still quite imaginable) scenario on your revenues, in this instance.

When to use this:

•   For any numerical projection.

•   When you may need to prepare for either better or worse outcomes (worse may mean lower revenue; better may mean strains on capacity).

•   When you need to manage expectations (e.g. of the board) about the range of outcomes that are possible, given a particular course of action.

Contingency planning

This is essentially thinking about some kind of Plan B. What will you do if your proposed plan just doesn’t work out? Any time you have said, “We’ll do it tomorrow if it rains today,” you’re doing contingency planning.

Another way of thinking about contingency planning is simply management of risks. Risk is inherent to existence, and everyone’s risk level has gone up due to the current situation. Figuring out how you are going to address and/or live with the risks you incur is part of any leadership role.

When to use this:

•   When you undertake a significant new initiative or a change to an existing program, a contingency plan (What do we do if…?) should be part of the project management.

•   Events should always, but obviously particularly in the era of COVID-19, undergo extensive contingency planning. (If you need a template for a contingency plan, start with your event planner!)

Scenario planning

Scenario planning involves looking with imagination – and fortitude – at the future and constructing narratives about what it might look like. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust us all into a constant scenario planning cycle – but climate change, artificial intelligence and social justice movements should already have been exercising a lot of our imaginations long before this year.

A thorough scenario planning exercise, when done by large organizations, can be incredibly complex and very extensive. For smaller organizations, it will be simpler, but still involves a willingness to imagine multiple futures and think about their implications. What might happen? What’s not necessarily likely, but still possible?

The “planning” part of scenario planning leads us to the questions of: what does this matter? What would we do now to prepare for any of these eventualities? When might we have to make a bet on one or the other of these futures? That is, are there things we may do or omit doing that we may regret later, depending on how things turn out? What are the signals from the environment that will tell us whether some of these scenarios are more or less likely than others? What could we do now to position ourselves well for any of these possible futures? What can we do to make our preferred future(s) more likely and avoid the outcomes that are worse?

A relatively simple example could be if you are advocating for a specific legislative change for your sector. If you are successful, here’s what the future might look like: for the sector, for your members, for the association. If you are not successful, here’s the alternative. There could be multiple versions of these futures – what if the government makes part of the change you are hoping for, but not all of it? What if the advocacy effort takes far longer than expected? What if your sector changes in the meantime?

When to use this:

•   Some elements of scenario planning should be part of any strategic planning discussion. Fundamentally, strategy is always answering the question of what choices we should make to be successful, and that is always integrated with our view of the likely future(s).

•   When a major external event or situation (or more than one) would have a significant impact on you.

•   When doing a simple quantitative analysis on one or two variables, even with sensitivity analysis, isn’t rich or robust enough to help you understand your situation.

BRINGING YOUR PLAN ALONG WITH YOU

It is indeed a challenging – and exhausting – time to be in any kind of a leadership role. There is even less certainty than there ever was (or seemed to be), and more causes for anxiety. Some of the scenarios you are contemplating may be the opposite of pleasant. Even clarity of purpose may feel elusive.

Try not to hold yourself to some impossible yardstick of perfection. The assessment of leadership is that you made a decision through a reasonable process, based on what you knew at the time, taking the appropriate things into account. It would be great to have a crystal ball, but since you probably don’t, you will have to trust your process, your colleagues and your own judgement.

We don’t know exactly what next year will look like, but we’re pretty sure it won’t look quite like this year – so we’ll need to make good strategic decisions, keep an eye on the signposts we think are important, and adjust and adapt. Tools like these can help you get your arms around the challenges and determine how to move purposefully onward.   

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