Strategic Focus Critical in Navigating Black Swan Events like the Coronavirus Pandemic

Black swan is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise and has a major impact. The coronavirus pandemic definitely fits the definition. Its impact has left no nonprofit organization and their stakeholders untouched. Day-to-day operations, meetings, conventions, fund raising: every aspect has all been impacted.

The cascading impacts of social distancing, hoarding, shutting down of nonessential businesses, means strategic focus is no longer an option. Now it is imperative. It is especially true as organizations must now deal with not just the realities, but many unknowns, and even unknown unknowns. Strategic thinking and management throughout the organization across its governance, management, and operations are a must.

The initial reactions of many organizations will be to circle the wagons and bunker-up with the hope that this event will pass quickly and things will return to normal. Others will allow fear to creep in as concerns of total disaster for the organization sets in. There will be those who will face this black swan event head on strategically. That’s the approach organizations should take.

First, and foremost, do not let panic take over. Negative thoughts and actions seldom if ever result in positive outcomes. Survival shouldn’t be focus. Rather, it should be a proactive approach of determining what actions the organization must take to ensure they can meet stakeholders’ expectations and keep the organization moving forward in its quest to fulfill its mission and achieve its vision. Survival then becomes an outcome.

There is little doubt that today’s unprecedented situation falls well outside the organization’s existing strategic plan and implementation and operating plans. In fact, it’s probably safe to say it is nowhere near the radar screen. It’s now imperative to strategically assess plans from the perspective of the new external and internal environments the organization faces.

The critical issues current plans are based on need to be reassessed and new ones facing the organization identified and prioritized. In the process, new opportunities should be identified along with new threats and they should be strategically dealt with.

Because there is no road map for navigating this event to and beyond its outcome, a three level scenario planning effort can be an effective approach. Scenarios for the short, mid and long term should be defined with the most likely one for each identified and planned for.

For the short term – the next few weeks –the focus should be the best scenario for keeping the organization operating effectively. For the mid-term, what changes need to be made to current plans to address the new set of critical issues facing the organization, and how monetary, human, and time resources need to be realigned.

The long term or third level can include scenarios regarding changes to the organization that may need to occur to effectively operate within what is more than likely a new normal once the event has passed. Included should be ways to take advantage of new opportunities that have been identified.

In addition to strategically rethinking and aligning the organization’s plans and resources, the organization’s governance and management need to become strategically focused. Over the next weeks and months, the organization’s environments will be constantly shifting. As a result, it must become as nimble as possible, which requires greater levels of strategic thinking and managing across the entire organization and its structure. If an organization has a tendency to operate down in the weeds and the micromanage its management and staff, this is the time to focus more time – especially volunteer time – looking strategically at the what is happening outside and inside the organization in order to make necessary shifts quickly and decisively.

Finally, some thoughts about time: probably the organization resource that receives the least consideration. This event is not just significantly impacting the day-to-day operations of the organization that is creating even greater demands on staff time; it is also impacting virtually every volunteer leader as well. What that means is their time has become quite precious and needs to be used wisely and judiciously. Engage them strategically rather than burden them with mundane operational issues like whether or not the new copier that’s in the budget should be purchased.

History shows that black swan events are unique in their challenges. They are not only survivable, but many organizations emerge stronger. Using this event to become even more strategically focused will help an organization be one of those who emerge stronger.

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Don Ricketts is a Senior Consultant in Agriculture and Rural Development with LBL Strategies.
His success in growing volunteer-led organizations is a direct result of strong strategic planning and management skills coupled with solid experience in leadership development. He built what became a model for the coordinated consumer marketing efforts between states and their national organization and is known as an expert in organizational structure and governance. You may contact Don at:

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Don Rickets | Senior Consultant-Ag & Rural Development | LBL Strategies