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Strategy for uncertain times


12 August 2021 at 7:45 am
Mike Davis
Is it worth putting time into planning for the future if you can’t foresee what the future holds even a week from now? Mike Davis thinks so. Here, he shares three things every leader should prioritise to build resilience and sustainability into their organisation.


Mike Davis | 12 August 2021 at 7:45 am


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Strategy for uncertain times
12 August 2021 at 7:45 am

Is it worth putting time into planning for the future if you can’t foresee what the future holds even a week from now? Mike Davis thinks so. Here, he shares three things every leader should prioritise to build resilience and sustainability into their organisation.

Now is the winter of our discontent. At the time of writing this, Victoria has entered its sixth lockdown after seemingly just emerging from lockdown 5.0. New South Wales is experiencing the 2020 that Victoria had; and Queensland has also recently entered lockdown, with South Australia and Western Australia continuing to vacillate between lockdown and relative freedom

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on those of us who enjoy routine, consistency and regular interactions with friends, family and colleagues. It has also placed immense pressure on our work and personal lives. 

Perhaps the biggest impact has been on the difficulty COVID-19 presents to planning anything from a Zoom meeting, to a strategic planning session, to team building work. Is it worth putting time into planning for the future if you can’t foresee what the future holds even a week from now? Allow me to persuade you that it is in fact essential to continue to plan strategically; even more so in times of great uncertainty. 

Planning must take place to ensure good long-term outcomes for your organisation. The Stoics lived in times of great uncertainty which included war, disease, famine, poverty and tremendous inequality. We can learn a great deal from the private journals of some of their greatest leaders, philosophers and strategists from 2,000 years ago to help guide our strategic thinking today.

There are three things you should prioritise as a leader now to build resilience and sustainability into your organisation and I have anchored these to key precepts of Stoic thinking.

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” – Epictetus

Shared purpose

Having a clear consensus between your executive and board as to why your organisation exists, whom it exists to serve and to what end is extremely important. 

The shared purpose, should be a higher purpose, that extends beyond the organisation’s projected financial goals and it should confer a sense of meaning and belonging to all those involved with the organisation. 

Berry Street’s purpose is a great example of a quality purpose statement that can be shared and bought into across the organisation: “We believe children, young people and families should be safe, thriving and hopeful.” 

Such a purpose statement builds unity toward a shared purpose across all levels of the organisation, cascading down through the board and executive to staff, beneficiaries and the local community. Having a shared purpose gives you a strong foundation to embark on a strategic planning process geared toward embracing a diverse range of opinions and distilling them toward consensus through a shared strategy development journey. 

Oxfam have also put together a short, sharp and compelling purpose that doubles as a great call to action: “We relieve and eliminate poverty”. The simplicity of this purpose makes it easy for the board and executive to plan toward this shared purpose and also to ensure all of the organisation’s focus is on fulfilling the overarching shared purpose. 

It is fundamentally important as it helps Oxfam to decide what to do and what not to do, with great ease. A good shared purpose and clear strategy should always act as a guiding north star that sets your organisation in the right direction, and tells you what to do and what to avoid doing in the short, medium and long term. 

“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favourable.” – Seneca

Caring workforce

COVID-19 has blurred the lines between what is work time and what is personal time. Lockdown means we no longer have the advantage of demarcating the boundaries of our work day with a commute to work and home. Some clever commentators suggest that we should embark on a “fake commute” each day to help us remember these boundaries.

Wearing our pyjama bottoms, t-shirts and hoodies and with restrictions in play, it is increasingly hard to find time to look after ourselves and to set a time to finish work for the day. Caring organisations find a way to go the extra mile to make people feel valued, encouraging them to supplant work with extra self-care and to encourage a culture of open sharing.

One way that we try to make people feel valued at Spark Strategy is through regular team “shout-outs”. Shout-outs may sound simple and obvious but they tend to be a bit more layered with meaning and intent at Spark. Spark shout-outs have several key traits:

  • They praise a particular action, behaviour or outcome.
  • They link this action, behaviour or outcome to one of the Spark values.
  • They explain how the action, behaviour or outcome added value to the client and to the Spark team.

Other behaviours we want to see from leaders include encouraging people to dedicate time and focus to staying fit and healthy, by eating well and exercising during lockdown and ensuring that the message is to reach out and connect with colleagues as much as possible. 

Picking up the phone and calling a colleague rather than simply emailing or firing off a Microsoft Teams message is a great way to stay connected. Who is the one colleague each day that you will call and check-in with?

Building a resilient organisation starts with ensuring that you are sending a message as leaders that you care about your people, their health and wellbeing. The importance of this is multiplied during a time of crisis like COVID-19. 

People will always remember how management treated them during a crisis and this will help you to attract and retain the best and most loyal staff members. Wei Zheng cites some useful tactics in her Harvard Business review article on how to progress here.

“He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.” – Marcus Aurelius

Cultivating relationships

The first thing to happen when lockdown is announced is a flood of email meeting cancellations and suggestions to put everything on hold until we have more certainty. This makes it very difficult to maintain and cultivate your relationships. It becomes even more important to schedule time to make calls and to check in with your external contacts. 

Funders and partners need to know how you are going in the midst of COVID-19, how your approach has adapted and what you plan to do differently as a result of the pandemic. Letting these relationships slide will only make it harder to resume them when lockdown next lifts and your next opportunity to meet presents itself. 

Lockdown is actually the perfect time to rekindle relationships that you’ve let slide and to invest your time and effort into continuing to cultivate your existing relationships. If you think about it, despite being busier than ever, people have more flexibility and time to arrange a phone call or Zoom meeting with you than ever before. It’s also a great time to get active on LinkedIn and to welcome new contacts into your orbit that you can make a connection with. 

My view is that now more than ever people want human connection and interaction. This makes it an ideal time to reach out beyond your traditional networks to meet like-minded people with shared values and interests. Ipsos has published a useful resource, drawing on UK, Australian and New Zealand C-suite experience during early 2020 on how to ensure a great customer experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Friendship produces between us a partnership in all our interests. There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common.” – Seneca


Mike Davis  |  @mikedav84

Mike Davis is a senior strategic advisor at Spark Strategy, chief podcaster at Humans of Purpose and a board director at not for profits SIMNA Ltd and L2R Dance.

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