Strategic Planning in an Uncertain World

Alyssa Gasca

Should we renew our lease or invest in technology and flexible office space?

Are we preparing to ramp up to handle a new 15 million dollar deal, or are we going to lose 5 million dollars in business this year?

Are we going through a merger and planning to integrate a new firm, or do we need to hire some external leaders and invest in developing our existing team?

Are we going to grow by 10% next year, or will we need to cut 10% of our staff?

Do any of these challenges sound familiar? These are real challenges our team at SPARK has helped leadership teams work through in strategic planning sessions this year.

We’re living in a VUCA world

Times have changed, friends. The way we plan and lead needs to change, too. We are operating in what is being called a VUCA world. VUCA is short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Even amidst all of this uncertainty, we need to expand our skillsets, our mindsets, and our toolkits so we can continue to lead with clarity and confidence.

Strategic Planning through Uncertainty

During periods of change and uncertainty, we help leaders approach strategic planning differently.

With the amount of uncertainty and complexity most leadership teams are now facing, leaders need to plan, budget for, and communicate multiple possible scenarios in a way that provides employees enough clarity, confidence and connection to keep momentum and continue feeling positive and productive about their work, while also maintaining flexibility for an ever-changing landscape. Oof. No easy task!

How do we help leaders do this? One way we have adapted is by implementing a more agile strategic planning process with our clients.

The long term vision, mission, values (2-3 year horizon) should stay relatively stable throughout the year.

People still need a common “north star” to align around, be inspired by and collectively move towards – even if the approach changes, the big picture goals stay stable.

Annual goals should be specific, clear, and measurable, but also have flexible targets built in.

Set a range that the team feels confident and comfortable with instead of a single target, and recognize that as you go through the year and changes happen, it is OK to change or refine the targets – you just need to communicate about it.

If compensation or bonus targets are set at the beginning of the year, some companies may need to revisit their bonus programs as the year goes on to allow for reality, flexibility, and retention.

Where the traditional planning process really feels different is in holding quarterly planning sessions and run 90 day sprints instead of one large planning event once a year.

A 90 day focus allows you to celebrate progress, even if direction changes, and get full team commitment to the highest company priorities for the next 90 days, with clarity and confidence

  • It is easier to focus execution and get full commitment to what we know for sure needs to happen to move the highest priorities forward in the next 90 days.
  • Allows for a safe forum to discuss changes in direction or circumstances and update priorities and commitments as the year progresses rather than being set up for failure when conditions or priorities change with no forum or process to respond.
  • Prevents time wasted detailing out long term projects or plans that are not realistically ever going to be properly funded or budgeted, which sets up a feeling of overwhelm and failure when we have a to-do list that is too long, and waters down any progress on the true top 3-5 priorities.

Weekly, teams should have a system to track and communicate progress to annual targets and quarterly goals. This can be done in 10-15 minutes in a weekly staff meeting, and provides a regular enough pulse that we can challenge or redirect effort if priorities or conditions change within the quarter

  • The biggest/most important change this requires is more frequent & personal communication with all employees after and between planning sessions.
  • It was never effective to do an annual or bi-annual employee meeting to share the strategic plan, but now more than ever, employees are feeling disconnected and re-evaluating their relationship with their work and employers.
  • The best thing you can do to retain and engage your employees during this time of upheaval is ensure you are talking regularly with each employee and giving them a line of sight from what you are asking them to do each day to what the company is trying to accomplish.
  • We have always known employees thrive and are more productive and engaged when they have an opportunity for autonomy, purpose and mastery in their day to day work, and as we continue to ask more from everyone as we go through the talent shortage we are in, it is even more important to stay connected and ensure your team is finding meaning in their work while also feeling like they are appreciated and cared about.

SPARK Resource: The Plan on a Page

We recommend using a simple, clear document to map out your strategic plan that all team members can refer to. We call it the “Plan on a Page.”

Check out a downloadable example here if you’d like to adapt and use for your team in 2023: Spark Example Plan on a Page.

SPARK Recommended Reading

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