Moving Forward With Strategic Plans in Times of Uncertainty
March 22, 2022
Nearly 3 months into 2022, few of us would have predicted the level of disruption and uncertainty that we are still witnessing. With a Russian war raging in Ukraine, the term VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) seems particularly relevant again. This term was used by the US Army War College to describe the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s.
Surely we thought by now the pandemic would be fully behind us, and we would all feel better for having retooled ourselves and our organizations. A year ago, in the midst of the pandemic, a Deloitte study found that 70% of CXOs don’t have complete confidence in their organizations’ ability to pivot and adapt to disruptive events. These are the chief officers of their organizations, ostensibly responsible for the smooth functioning of their business units, so this 70% figure shows how uncommonly out of control our workplaces have become.
What does this mean for the value of your strategic plan? How can we ensure its relevance in times of great uncertainty?
We can get some insight from Clayton Christensen, author of a number of best-selling books on strategy and innovation.
Most people think of strategy as an event, but that’s not the way the world works. When we run into unanticipated opportunities and threats, we have to respond. Sometimes we respond successfully; sometimes we don’t. But most strategies develop through this process. More often than not, the strategy that leads to success emerges through a process that’s at work 24/7 in almost every industry.
As we near the end of the first quarter of 2022, hopefully many of you are actioning your organization’s strategic plan. Making sure you are revisiting your plans, and asking questions for how you can stay resilient and be prepared for unexpected shifts is key to managing through disruption.
A few things to consider to move your plan forward:
Does the plan include both strategies and tactics to deliver on the goals and objectives?
We see many plans that are a laundry list of action items that are not clear tactics and do not tie to any over-arching strategy. To be sure it’s a strategy, ask yourself: why do this? If the answer is that if I do this, we will achieve the company objectives (typically over 2 or 3 years), then it’s a strategy.
Tactics are the series of efforts that are required to satisfy the strategy.
Example from Consumer Goods:
Strategy: Convert disposable shavers to Gillette Systems
Tactic to support the strategy: TV advertising for Gillette systems only, no advertising of Gillette disposables, ever.
Do you have a resource plan that ensures accountability and is also flexible enough to be responsive to unpredicted changes?
Be sure ownership is clear at the tactic level. It’s often the case that once plans are developed, progress is not made for one or more of the following reasons: 1) there is no one resource who owns the tactic, 2) the right resources are not assigned to the right tactics, and 3) one resource is assigned far too many tactics. Accountability is best ensured through monitoring by the next level manager in the strategic plan hierarchy -- as they say, that which isn’t measured isn’t done.
Additional or different resources may also be required as unanticipated changes take place. Be prepared to make shifts in the organization as necessary to respond to a new opportunity or a significantly evolving situation, and ensure you have some budget flexibility to make this happen. As this happens, discuss these emerging issues with the core team for that strategy and tactics. Then, together, make the necessary shifts to address what you are facing.
Is your plan actionable to deliver against the strategies and tactics? Are the outcomes and interdependencies clear?
Translating a strategic plan’s strategies and tactics into clear, tangible initiatives helps move things forward. Be sure to specify things like: key outcomes expected, specific team members necessary to deliver the initiative, organizational systems (IT, Operations, Finance, etc.) or other resources and interdependencies required to implement, both within and outside the organization, and key timelines for each initiative. It’s important that 2 or 3 clear metrics are identified for each strategy, so tactic owners can understand the expected achievements that the overall strategy is charged with delivering.
Are you meeting frequently enough to track progress and resolve issues?
Tactics in a typical 3-year strategic plan are intended to be completed in a 12-18 month window, but with such a high degree of disruption across industries, it may mean that the team responsible for the strategic plan should meet monthly, or even several times per month. Be flexible on frequency as you assess the situation, some of which may demand more frequent discussions. You may need to determine how to resolve unanticipated roadblocks that are impacting the ability to advance the plan in the timelines outlined. It can be helpful to standardize the plan updates using a template. For example, how will you handle unexpected external forces (e.g. supply chain issues), and/or the need for new or evolving skills that may require additional training and/or outside resources? What new approaches should be considered? Does the timeline need to be altered? Is a larger budget required? How can the situation be addressed without a big impact to the plan?
What support is needed from the senior leadership team?
Now more than ever, effective communication from the bottom up and top down is essential. The Deloitte Resilience study found that more than a third of responding CXOs were not confident their organizations had succeeded in developing trust between leaders and employees. Be transparent and clear with senior leaders: What are the challenges you are confronting – both expected and unexpected? Are other groups or divisions facing the same issues? How have others resolved these – both inside and outside the organization? Leadership teams should be highly proactive in making sure the organizational environment is designed to facilitate support, and provide effective, transparent communication between groups or divisions. Effective, faster resolution of issues is essential to avoid derailing key strategies in the plan, as speed has become a greater differentiation than ever before.
Finding the balance
In times of unprecedented change, strategic plans have not become irrelevant, but in fact more relevant to help guide organizations through disruptive times. Disruption makes people lose focus, so a strategic plan is therefore all the more important to serve as a lighthouse through rough seas.
At Compass, we help our clients drive growth through well thought out, actionable plans - beacons in times of turmoil. Please reach out if your organization needs help creating, assessing or actioning such a plan.
Lynda is a consumer marketing expert with a track record of successful U.S. and global product launches. She has created new product innovations across consumer wellness, from personal care to digital health. She is a founding partner of Compass Marketing.