The coronavirus outbreak is first and foremost a human tragedy, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. It is also having a growing impact on the global economy in a way that overshadows the global economic crisis from 2008. Health and economy, two factors that affect any organization dedicated to maximizing social impact, be it community development, medical care, food & nutrition, refugee camps, environmental protection or advocating for human rights. Now is the time to get prepared for the post COVID-19 era – with agile strategy frameworks rather than rigid and inflexible 3-5 year strategies.
By now, every organization is (or should be) operating in a crisis mode. Where possible, teams work remotely, key functions have developed and established work around solutions to address the impact of social distancing. Non essential functions are either on hold or already phased down. This is a time where organizations with a proper risk management and preparedness programme have hugely benefited from their preventive and contingent measures. Like in any crisis, of course it is important for leadership to support the morale of staff and supporters, to engage in regular communication giving hope, direction and inspiration, as well as to continuously identify, prioritize and address open issues to further improve the short term situation during this pandemic.
Interesting enough, when it comes to strategic direction and priorities, many organizations I have come across over the last few weeks are behaving in a very human way: ducking in the hope that COVID-19 passes and they will be back to normal, focussing exclusively on the short term – on the next days, possibly week rather than getting prepared for the time after COVID-19.
The assumption that the world will swing back like a bump in a fender and basically get back into its old shape are deeply mistaken.
Scientists confirm: the world after COVID-19 will not look the same. Weeks and possibly months of social distancing will impact values, priorities, behaviors in private life, and operating models of companies and on-profit organizations alike around the globe and across all sectors.
“At the moment we are reducing density everywhere we can, and for good reason,” observes Richard Sennett, a professor of urban studies at MIT and senior adviser to the UN on its climate change and cities programme. “But on the whole density is a good thing: denser cities are more energy efficient. So I think in the long term there is going to be a conflict between the competing demands of public health and the climate.”
12 years ago, during the global economic crisis, we witnessed that people living in the world’s poorest communities had been impacted much more dramatically as a result of the crisis. The impact on the implementation of the MDGs has been extensively researched and demonstrated through the IMF or other institutes. According to a study published by UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) of the impact of this recession in the five developing nations Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Jamaica and Zambia, many poor families were disproportionally affected.
I’m not writing this to join the choir of pessimists, I’m writing this as a wake up call for leaders, because action is needed right now. Assuming that donor’s priority will be the same pre- and post-COVID-19 is an interesting approach. To decide that you do not consider adjusting your strategy is a brave decision – or to put it bluntly: if your strategy is so generic that events like this pandemic don’t bring any need for adjustments in the nature and direction of your organization, maybe the status of your traditional 5 year strategy has room for improvement in the first place?
We already see that COVID-19 is a catalyst for new operating models with a higher emphasis on remote teams working in home-office environments. What we will see shortly is its same effect on old fashioned 5 year strategies. In a highly appreciated recent discussion with the CEO of a client organization, I heard the argument that the last strategic review process was a difficult and lengthy process for her organization, keeping key people busy for 8 months, running from one decision committee to the other. She wouldn’t have the time and capacity to invest now into strategic direction and review of priorities.
Strategy formulation has long been a domain of careful deliberation based on a maximum amount of information. A multi-stakeholder process, designed to provide in-depth analysis and different perspectives to make balanced choices about the nature and direction of an organization. In a dynamic environment with increasing speed, growing scope and declining predictability of change, this old model no longer fits volatile, complex and uncertain times. In such disruptive marketplaces, the value of traditional strategy is diminishing.
What we need in the future are agile frameworks. Today’s strategy process needs to be an agile framework for key decisions, providing a clear vision and overarching direction for an organization, a federation for a partnership and empowering teams to contribute towards the common vision in an entrepreneurial way.
Pro-active, self-organized teams with common vision and mutual accountability. Exchange with key stakeholders and strategic partners on a regular basis rather than an “every 3-5 year survey routine“. If you proactively reach out you will not disrupt donors, they will appreciate that you are thinking about the future. Don’t be the last guy in line, who sticks to a 5 year plan. Be proactive! Use online facilitation to engage with important partners to asses latest trends and developments while they are happening – not when they are old news.
So, challenging times require new approaches. If your crisis response is operational and “kind of works“, think about engaging with key partners and stakeholders to start think beyond the flattening of the curve of new COVID-19 patients. Start thinking about what role you and your organization can play in achieving the Sustainability Development Goals in the „new normal“ external environment. What will continue to work? What needs to change and how? Who do you need to partner with to achieve the social impact you seek? Important: what do you need to stop doing?
No, now is not the time to launch and communicate a new strategy (not at all!) – now is the time to start the process of engaging and thinking about the near future. A future beyond self-quarantine, stay-home requests and toilet paper shortage. A future were we call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.