At the time of this writing, the world is wrestling with a new fast-moving variant of the COVID-19 virus (Omicron) adding to the scourge that has gripped the world since early 2020. While organizations wrestle with how to plan for what comes after COVID there are lessons we can learn now that can extend far beyond that if we are prepared to pay attention. We look at how to plan and strategize in times of uncertainty and complexity.
The discovery and rise of the Omicron variant put what was planned to be a more ‘normal’ holiday season into disarray in 2021. High case counts and the fastest moving variant to date brought chaos to organizations seeking to return to some form of normal in early 2022. Normal-like conditions were expected after nearly 2 years of rotating lockdowns, restrictions, constraints, and shifts in policy.
Humans don’t deal well with ongoing uncertainty. The complexity associated with trying to predict, manage and strategize is only compounded by the global nature of the problem and our witness to it.
This is a lesson in humanity and strategy for complex times.
Strategy in a Complex Time
We might draw some parallels with the words from Bruce Cockburn’s Lovers in a Dangerous Time as we contemplate our circumstances:
Don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by?
We never get to stop and open our eyes
One minute you’re waiting for the sky to fall
Next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all
Crises tend to focus energy and attention on the immediate threat, drawing us away from strategy. Strategy links what we do with where we want to go and want to achieve. It’s the knitting together of plans, goals and actions.
It sets our direction and movement by design. And like anything designed, this can be done skillfully or unskilfully and that depends greatly on how we approach it.
Pandemic Realities & Interconnections
A pandemic exists out of networks and effect coupling. Economies, global travel, and climate issues all have high levels of interdependencies associated with them and effects that are the hallmark features of complex systems. The lessons from the pandemic will be many and many of them will apply beyond its end.
With that in mind, how might we design for our next chapter while we sit in the present one?
1. Change is endemic. Rather than work against change, we’re better to acknowledge its constant presence. This is akin to living with a chronic condition vs treating an injury. You don’t ‘solve’ a chronic condition, you manage it and learn how to live with it in the healthiest manner possible.
2. Design for persistence. Treating disruption and change as if it’s an episode is the wrong tact. That perspective marshals resources for an event, not a journey. It’s why the strategy that a sprinter uses is very different from that of a marathon runner. What we are dealing with more than ever are sprints (with clear start and end points) that intersect with the kind of energy management that is faced when embracing a long-term push forward into the unknown. As dog sled champion Blair Braverman explains, we need a strategy to manage this that is different than raw feats of power
One of the most surprising things about distance mushing is the need to front-load rest. You’re four hours into a four-day race and the dogs are charging down the trail, leaning into their momentum, barely getting started — and then, despite their enthusiasm, it’s time to stop. And you keep doing that, no matter how much your dogs want to keep going….It’s far easier to prevent fatigue than to recover from it later. But resting early, anticipating your dogs’ needs, does something even more important than that: It builds trust…Blair Braverman
Trust is the key word.
3. Nurture and Protect Trust. We may not know what is coming or promise specific outcomes from our actions, but we can engender trust by being clear in our intent, humble in our methods, and respectful in our communications (meaning we listen and share consistently and regularly). I resist the choice of the term ‘transparent’ because often we can’t see what’s all in front of us, much like the image above, and some of us see different things so I can’t be transparent if you can’t see what I’m showing. As I’ve written before, transparency and honesty aren’t the same things.
4. Engage. Active engagement in strategic thinking, action, foresight, and evaluation is essential, even if that means slowing down to conserve energy. As the example above illustrates, rest and action must be balanced, but they must do so together. Rest and do it early, often and consistently, but don’t stop. It’s more than just managing energy, it’s also about focus. It’s about being a participant and recognizing that passivity is an action and a choice. Not participating is just being non-active, not apart, however, you can choose what level of participation, attention, and engagement you’re willing to offer.
5. Quality Decisions. These are ones made with care, frequency, data, and feedback. The timing and process of this are entirely relative to the situation. Very often, we are better to make many small decisions quickly coupled with active learning (e.g., evaluation) and feedback cycles than using long, deliberative protracted processes.
Care-full decisions are ones grounded in principles (even if such principles are in development as you go) because that is what keeps you grounded and focused in a specific direction. These ensure consistency, efficiency and direction in making decisions to allow cohesiveness. Otherwise, every decision will take longer, be more laboured, and may not be aligned with what you have or have done (those lessons). The aim in making decisions in situations with much complexity is to find coherence that fits. While these decisions may require quick thinking, the probing, evaluating, sensemaking, and actions required in a complex situation do require time. You can’t have a strategy without devoting time to this work.
This is something we design for — we design for humans.
We might be in the thick of it: the worst (or what might feel like the worst) of the pandemic. It will continue and it will also come to an end at some point. SARS COV-2 (COVID-19)might disappear entirely or drift into the background much like the H1N1influenza virus has. But something else is coming and that might be environmental, biological, or geological (e.g., earthquakes). Not all of these unexpected things are terrible for everyone, but all of them are disruptive to stability.
The most important thing you can do is start this planning process now. Begin the process of identifying your values and principles you wish to act on. Use these as guides for crafting a strategy that aligns with those values, reveals and moves you toward goals, and set a feedback and learning strategy. These simple ‘rules’ or guides will allow you to start acting in the moment and develop practice and confidence in making decisions, setting direction, learning, and adapting to fit the changing context.
Because the context is changing and you can either let it push you in whatever direction it’s moving or you can direct your organization with the flow yet also toward where you want it to go.
And as the adage goes for tree planting so, too does the sentiment hold for post-pandemic planning: The best time to engage in your strategic thinking and design was yesterday, the second-best is today.
To come back to Bruce Cockburn’s lyrics:
Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, You gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight
Strategic design gives us that fight to get what we value most.
I work with organizations to design their next step and help post-pandemic planning. Contact me if I can be of service to your organization and best wishes with your efforts to thrive in these complex times.
** With all respect to Bruce Cockburn’s songcraft I have a particular affection for this version of Lovers in a Dangerous Time by the Barenaked Ladies.
Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash
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