Strategy and planning, Management, Management & leadership

Strategy in hard times

Management Consultant and author, Alan Lawrie, talks us through developing a strategy under the pressure of hard times.

Anyone can produce a brilliant plan in good times…

Big and bold visions, lots of new ideas and plans to expand, develop and boldly go… It is different in hard times; ever-increasing demand, downward income, austerity, increased competition and short term insecurity all make the going tough. Survival feels to be just about enough. Perhaps, the biggest challenge is retaining a sense of organisational and personal confidence.

The Italian political writer Antonio Gramsci famously advocated for “Pessimism of the intellect – optimism of the will”. Pessimism of the intellect calls for tough and rational analysis of your current position and future prospects, questioning assumptions and challenging the status quo. The optimism of the will means having the confidence and courage to attempt difficult things and be willing to stand out. Probably not a bad maxim for running a voluntary organisation.

In tough times, our organisations need to have a very clear sense of our purpose, our values, and what we want to achieve in the short to medium term.

Three good starter questions are:

  • How will we measure success in the medium term?
  • What do we stand for?
  • What does (or should) differentiate us from other organisations?

Faced with a challenging climate, it is easy to be bounced around. Always reacting to events, relying on crisis management and chasing any funding pot that might keep things going. One experienced voluntary sector manager described her organisation’s approach as ‘If we have any kind of strategy its ‘that something will turn up’, but, we can’t continue just drifting from issue to issue’.

So why is making strategy still a struggle in so many organisations?   It is often a process that fails to engage people. It becomes yet another management chore and fails to lead to real change.   Here are four blocks we need to tackle:

  1. No time or space to think. We’re too busy running services, dealing with crisis and keeping our head above water to think creatively and develop strategies.
  2. We turn inwards. In tough times there is a tendency to batten down the hatches, concentrate on short term survival and exercise caution.
  3. We avoid difficult issues. Everyone knows that project x is out of date and that campaign y is struggling, but it’s too difficult or awkward to do anything about it.
  4. Change management fails. Management writer Peter Drucker famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Our traditions, ways of doing things and informal and unwritten rules directly or indirectly block any change, however well-intentioned.

Here are eight approaches that organisations can use to develop a useful strategy that makes a case for the organisation and gives a clear focus to help to steer through fast-changing waters:

1. Start at the end

Focus on the outcomes we want to achieve. Work out what you want to achieve or change over the next few years. Describe the difference you will make for your users or community. How will you know that you have been successful? Do all of our activities contribute to our outcomes? Outcomes that are relevant, challenging, and realistic can bring an organisation together and help people see that they are making real progress.

2. What’s on the horizon?

We can be so involved in running our organisation that we don’t see changes in community needs or profiles or bigger changes that could impact what we do. A good strategy is about being one step ahead of the game. We need to commit time to spotting trends and possible changes in the pipeline and think through how we might respond. How can we turn threats into opportunities?

3. Work out what is core

It is easy to lose our focus and overspread the organisation. Sometimes we take on projects and activities that only vaguely relate to our purpose. It is useful to agree on the organisation’s core purpose and the role and to check that all activities fit with this.

4. Don’t assume people understand you

Spend time testing and improving how you explain what you do and what you want to achieve. How does your work fit within other people’s strategies? What value do you add?

5. Collaborate

In tough times there is a temptation to draw in and become defensive. How can we work with similar organisations that support our vision and values? How can we turn potential competition into fruitful collaboration?

6. Look at the business model

How can we diversify our income base and reduce our dependency on one or two income streams? Do we need to rethink our approach to funding and income development?

7. Build alliances

Organisations need to build up a strong network of supporters, partners and people who will speak up for it in tough times. Who can we bring onside?

8. Learn to say ‘no’

Trustees and managers need to be able to walk away from under costed contracts or avoid being ‘guilt tripped’ into sustaining activities without proper support. Recognising that activity has reached its end and being able to bring it to a positive end is a key strategic task.

The time spent working on our strategic future is not a luxury. Strategy is much more than producing a three-year plan. It needs to involve people throughout the organisation and challenge our thinking. It has a key part to play in building our resilience.

How to lead the strategic process

Organisational leaders have a critical process in leading and steering the strategic process. Based on real experience, here are five ideas as to how they can do this:

1. Help people to stand back. Often we are too close to an issue to think clearly. We can’t see the woods for the trees. Encourage people to see the bigger picture – how is our community changing? What are other organisations doing? What external trends might shape our future? Once we have identified the key external trends, we can work on how we can approach them proactively.

2. Work out which issues need ‘air time’. Is there any key medium to longer-term issues that we keep skipping over? An experienced chairwoman of a health charity commented ‘we spent more time arguing about car parking space allocation at our centre than dealing with an ever-increasing funding gap”. What are the key issues that need analysis, debate and resolution?

3. Manage consultation. If you want to kill a new idea – keep talking about it. Strategy often degenerates into endless meetings, badly ran away days and a doomed to fail attempt to reach a consensus. Consultation, engagement and discussion need careful stewardship if it is to be meaningful.

4. Don’t jump into detail too soon. There is an understandable danger that funding and operational issues, such as ‘’who will do that” dominate and get in the way. As essential as they are, key strategic issues such as ‘what sort of organisation must we want to be?’ or “how can we make the greatest impact” are allowed time without being constrained by organisational or managerial detail.

5. Work for a positive and open culture. A key challenge is creating a culture in which people are encouraged to think big, challenge constructively and are keen to learn from experience.

Alan Lawrie is an independent consultant specialising in strategy and organisational development. He is also the author of Business and Strategic Planning.