For Leaders, What Does “Planning” Look Like Now?
Whether we choose to adopt this perspective or not, we humans are being individually and collectively transformed – as a species – by the Covid-19 global phenomenon. The pandemic is no longer an acute emergency; it is now introducing the prospect of a profoundly disruptive and chronic unpredictability for the foreseeable future. Because there are very few technical strategies for navigating such VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) conditions, every one of us is being called to stretch – personally and professionally – into our most adaptive, growth-oriented selves.
Exploring Terra Incognita
For some tips about how to be an effective leader in VUCA conditions, see my updated previous post, Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic. In the meantime, another big question on my clients’ minds is how to do “planning” in terra incognita. Mysterious forces have transported us to a place for which there are no maps, nor guidebooks written in any of our secular languages. (Forgive yourself if you feel a bit lost these days. No one, right now, is not lost!) The short answer to the planning question is to trust your noblest instincts, your best data, and your most psychologically spacious, inventive and realistic colleagues to survey the area you’re in – and then chart your own range of possible trajectories. Using the organization’s mission as base camp, get super-curious and treat planning like an exploratory expedition by running forays in multiple directions. As best you can, resist the natural temptation to hunker down. In addition, if you also have opportunities to collaborate in promising ways with new partners in your industry, and/or your geographic area, and/or government entities, and/or former competitors, consider experimenting with those, too, and share generously. For your planning meetings, consider intentionally mixing your modalities between phone calls and teleconference platforms, using these strategies.
One Approach to Planning
A planning approach advanced by many sources lately is a process that is quite simple – not to be confused with easy! – and works for nearly anything: staffing, budgeting, logistics, products, services, events, etc. There are various descriptions of this framework (and if it has a specific attribution I haven’t found it), but the process boils down to three steps once you identify the real question at hand; e.g., what will X program delivery look like in January, 2021? You may already be doing some version of it:
Step 1. What is the worst-case scenario? If none of the variables you can think of end up breaking in your favor, what is worst situation that could result? How would the organization deal with that? Conversely, what is the ideal scenario? If your organization could utilize this radical disruption in its previous modes of operating to actually make bold changes (e.g. transforming agency culture, or overhauling company product offerings, or fulfilling the mission through an entirely different set of assumptions, or *use your imagination here*) that seemed out of reach before, what would they be? (Check out these examples: how to use “personal policies” to increase your work-life bandwidth even beyond the pandemic, Hawaii’s revamp of state economic recovery policy, these potential redesigns in airplane seating and one world leader’s blueprint for “re-globalization.”)
Step 2. What is the most probable scenario? What do your most reliable sources of hard data, combined with your gut intuition, tell you is likely to happen? If things were to unfold as you would guess, how does that affect your planning? If planning for even the most probable scenario feels like a risk, ask yourself these five questions. (Also worth asking at Step 2: At this point in your analysis, do you need to reframe what the real, core question is?)
Step 3. How can the decisions you make today prepare you for the worst-case scenario, account for the most probable scenario, and lay the groundwork for the ideal? How can your organization approach its concrete day-to-day realities while keeping its doors wide open to the best possible future outcome? Here are some coaching questions I might offer to a client at Step 3:
- What has to be true, and by when, for the ideal scenario to come to pass? What action can you take right now to influence it?
- What projects or experiments can you launch today in order to obtain the practical information you need to build the bridge to the ideal future?
- How will you recognize key choice points when you encounter them along the way?
- If – as they say – “energy flows where attention goes,” what must you be attending to and investing in now so as to manifest the ideal scenario later?
- As a leader, how do you have to behave, how must you communicate, and who do you need to be at this moment in order to embody the possibility of the ideal?
- How does your leadership team (including the board) need to grow, change and evolve in order to lead others into the ideal? What will be lost if these leaders don’t change?
- What must the organization learn in order to make the ideal a reality?
- How could the organization’s reputation be enhanced – years into the future – by how it handles its planning and learning processes during the pandemic?
Three sources of inspiration that may help evoke your own wisdom as you move forward with planning – no matter what process you use! – are:
- signing up for Harvard Business Review’s free Coronavirus “Daily Alert” which brings a wide range of expertise on timely topics straight to your inbox every morning ET;
- listening to Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Big Magic) discuss her reassuring, perceptive and sage approach to Covid-19 overwhelm in this beautiful video interview with TED headquarters;
- and, if you sense that “just beyond yourself is where you need to be,” imbibing this juicy poem of that title by David Whyte.
Closing Note: I continue to wish good health, ease and strength to you, your loved ones and all of your colleagues, wherever they are on our planet. May you find your new sweet spot and discover fresh dimensions of thriving in this strange world that is, paradoxically, both so familiar and yet so unrecognizable at the same time. Thank you for your leadership. –SMP