Four steps to emerge fit for the future after Covid-19
During lockdown I have found solace in nature, in the annual renewal of life we see every spring. This hopeful and life-affirming period of the year stands in sharp contrast to the horrific impact of Covid-19. The end of this global health emergency is not in sight, in fact there is unlikely to be an end. But our minds are now turning to recovery and renewal, just like the natural world does every spring. In this blog, we want to help your purposeful organisation find a way to emerge from this crisis, fit for the future.
If you spend much time on social media, and pay attention to these sorts of things, you might have see #BuildBackBetter, #JustRecovery, #GreenRecovery. What these hashtags try to capture is the old adage that we should not let a crisis go to waste, and that we should use the effort to recover from this crisis to create a better world. We can do this with our purposeful organisations too, creating a better organisation out of the crisis. I like to think of this as a new interpretation of resilience, not bouncing back to what we had before, but bouncing forward.
In earlier blogs, I have written about using a simple strategic framework for managing your charity, social enterprise or public sector body:
Focus on impact
Emerge, fit for the future
You can find out more about the first two here and here. I think that now is the time to turn our minds towards emergence. Not every purposeful organisation will be at the same stage - sadly too many will still be struggling with survival on a daily basis. But I suggest that it is vital that everyone who has the honour of leading a purposeful organisation should try to balance their energies between all three.
Firstly, it is impossible to stay in crisis management mode for a protracted period without causing significant harm to personal wellbeing. It is exhausting. For some people, they get an adrenaline rush from crisis management, but over a longer time, heightened levels of stress hormones cause damage to our health and our ability to perform well at work. That’s one of the reasons why I have found solace in nature - surrounding ourselves with nature is proven to reduce the levels of those stress hormones, improving our wellbeing and focus.
Secondly, staying in crisis management mode, and struggling to survive is evidence that there might be more deep-rooted strategic problems that need to be resolved. Taking the time to step back, reflect and learn the lessons of the crisis can help us identify different ways of doing things. This can help us resolve the immediate issues we face, as well as contribute to longer-term improvements. I covered this in my blog about making things normal in a time of abnormality.
There isn’t a time to stop thinking about one element and start thinking about the next, but I see this as an opportune time to turn up the volume on emergence and start to dial down the others.
As a practical example, it is likely that as soon as the crisis really hit your organisation, you spent the vast majority of your meetings discussing survival. As you’ve become clearer on how long you can survive for under different scenarios, you spent more time talking about making impact during the lockdown, modifying your operations to the current situation. I recommend that now is a good time to devote a larger proportion of your meetings to the emergence discussion.
So what do I mean by emerge fit for the future? I’ll go back to something I’ve been advocating throughout this crisis - talk about scenarios, not about plans. None of us know what the future will hold, how long lockdown restrictions of one sort or another will be in place, what longer-term support might be in place, nor what the longer-term needs of our beneficiaries will be. But by discussing different scenarios, different stories of the future, we can collectively think through the different consequences for our purposeful organisation, and so that prepares us for what the future might hold.
This is a different way of defining success. As a strategy consultant, I get asked to help charities define their mission and establish their programmes of work that will see them achieve it - creating a strategy and a plan. But now I’m saying don’t do that. Think instead of your strategy as an adaptive and emergent consequence of a focus on your purpose in an uncertain world.
"Forget about a strategy or plan, focus on your purpose"
Because the world is so uncertain, there aren’t clear answers, but there are questions. And in asking questions of ourselves and our teams, we explore the possibilities of the future. Some of the questions that I advise that we all ask ourselves now are:
What is your purposeful organisation for, and who is it for? What is your mission and has it changed?
What have you learnt during this crisis about how you are able to deliver your mission? What has worked or failed in relation to your finances, what have you been able to operationally deliver, what had to change?
What behaviours have you seen in your staff or your volunteers? How have these behaviours helped or hindered your ability to deliver your mission, and what have you done to support your people?
I posted some resources about design thinking on LinkedIn a while ago. Design thinking is basically a way of helping you explore what is needed and how you can deliver it. You may have heard of agile project management as an alternative to ‘traditional’ project management, it is often used in software development. Agile methods focus on creating something basic, testing what works about it and what doesn’t, and then improving it. The principles behind design thinking and agile are exactly what I’m suggesting we do here about strategy - we learn about what has worked and what hasn’t, and then seek to keep and build on the things that have worked and remove and change the things that haven’t.
The phrase Agile Strategy is relatively new, but the concept of organisational agility is as old as the hills. Just think of the business school examples of the companies who had a strategy that was fixed while the world rapidly changed around them - companies like Kodak or Blockbuster. We become habituated to behaving in the same way because we always have, and that’s worked just fine for us in the past. Those organisations that can challenge themselves, even when everything is working well, are the ones that will be able to adapt to a changing environment and succeed over time. This is doubly true at a time like now.
Four steps to emerge, fit for the future
So if we want to emerge from this crisis, fit for the future, here are four ideas to help:
Dial up the amount of time that you and your team talk about your future beyond the topics of survival and operational challenges;
Be extra vigilant about your natural instincts to jump to answers and lock in plans. We’ve been operating in crisis mode for a while now, and that predisposes us to take decisions and answer questions. But devoting time to discussing possibilities, scenarios of the future, being open to uncertainty and being welcoming of ambiguity can help you understand your situation even better. A good way of doing this is to spend an hour with your team creating a list of ‘what if…?’ questions, just avoid the temptation to answer them!
Focus on outcomes, on how well you’ve achieved your mission during the crisis so far. Write a list of all the things that you have done that has helped, and all the things that haven’t worked. What new ways of working or innovations have made a real positive difference? Explore whether you think the things that have worked will continue to work and give somebody, or a team, autonomy to scale them up.
Take a step back so you can see the bigger picture too. What has been the culture in your purposeful organisation during this crisis, do you want to preserve and enhance aspects of it into the future or are there aspects of your previous culture that have been lost that need to be brought back? Are the ways you have led your team changed, what do you want to keep and what do you want to change? These are difficult questions to explore on your own, so it might be worthwhile seeking an external adviser or coach who can work with you on these.
This crisis is far from over sadly. There will be many purposeful organisations that don’t survive, there will be some that get stuck in crisis mode and can’t find a sense of normality, but there will also be many who come through this period and emerge, fit for the future.
If you think that these approaches will help your purposeful organisation emerge, fit for the future from this crisis, 600 strategy is here to support you. We have developed tools and processes to help you steer your way through this successfully, which we will help you embed in your purposeful organisation.
Over the spring, since Covid-19 hit us, 600 strategy has provided advisory services around business continuity planning, risk management, financial health-checks, adapting operational practices to enable purposeful organisations to continue to deliver impact, and scenario planning for the future. The full range of our services are on the website. We are here to help you put your purpose at the heart of your operations, and to make the changes that will allow you to make progress with your mission. If that sounds of interest, get in touch to start a conversation.