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January 20, 2022
How to Do Strategic Planning in a Turbulent Time
By Jay Vogt

Jay Vogt-2020
Jay Vogt
Many nonprofits grappling with the day-to-day impacts of the coronavirus crisis may think now is not the moment to engage in strategic planning, but a turbulent time is precisely when organizations need to take a clear-eyed look at the medium and long term.

Try this four-hour, flexible strategic planning process with your most trusted advisors, using video conferencing.

Hour 1: Embrace the new reality

The bad news is that our new reality is pretty awful. The good news is that smart people have been here before, and made it out alive.

Military planners have modeled our new reality for years, and called it VUCA, which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. VUCA environments are characterized by high rates of change, lack of clarity about the present and the future, multiple key decision factors, and lack of clarity about what events even signify.

Leaders working in such environments must react quickly, take action without certainty, deal with many interdependencies, and function outside of their expertise. Ouch.

Read an article about VUCA (for example, Can You Do VUCA?) in advance of your first meeting and take an hour to share together about your new reality. After this discussion you may feel tired and frightened. You may feel excited and invigorated. Either way, you’ll be feeling your way into this new world.

Hour 2: Map three scenarios

Your future is uncertain, and you can’t know yet how good, or how bad, things will be. So you must be ready for anything. But you can’t be ready for everything. Simplify complexity by mapping three scenarios: Best Case, Worst Case, and Middle of the Road. Consider key parameters for each: revenues, expenses, head count, program implications, mission implications. Identify key triggers that tell you when you are entering or exiting a given scenario. Work like a master painter ”“ quickly, drawing broad strokes.

After this session, you may feel shell-shocked. You may feel determined. You may recoil from an ugly future. You may be drawn to opportunity. For better or worse, you’ve mapped your possible futures.

Hour 3: Map strategies for each

You don’t want to invest much time in planning for each scenario, because you can’t even know if you’ll use those plans. But you must prepare yourself for each eventuality, because each is possible. The best way to prepare in such uncertainty is to lay out strategies, or guiding principles, for action in each scenario. These strategies and principles will help you make decisions quickly as required.

For example, many organizations are already functioning under a radically new strategy which is, “Do all work remotely that can be done remotely,” and “Transform all face-to-face meetings to virtual meetings.”

A school superintendent working in an earlier recession gave his staff this clear guidance: “Cut anything directly affecting student learning last.” What guidance would direct any cuts you might make?

Develop a range of strategies and guiding principles for your organization for each of the three scenarios.

After this session, you may feel heartbroken, as the magnitude of your possible losses sinks it. You may feel committed to move heaven and earth to maintain your mission. Feel your feelings, steel your resolve, and keep going.

Hour 4: Make a 90-day action plan

Forget the three-year plan, which was already the short version of the five-year plan. You now have general guiding principles for operating in a VUCA environment. You have best case, worst case, and middle of the road future scenarios, with trigger points; you have a range of strategies for guiding decisions in each.

Based on your current understanding, where are you now vis a vis the three scenarios? Given that position, what are your top five priorities for the next 90 days? Of those, which is the top one of your five? What does success look like in 90 days? By what measures will you know?

Revisit—and update—this plan every month until things stabilize.

Engage Your Trusted advisors

Who should participate in these conversations? At a minimum, include your senior staff leader, your senior board leader, and a trusted external advisor. If you have senior staff who can deal with layoffs professionally, consider including them. If you have board members who have turned around businesses, consider including them. But keep your team small ”“ five or less. Move quickly. Stay flexible. Plan for the future, and survive now.

Jay W Vogt is the founder of Peoplesworth and EssentialWorth. His TEDx talk on The Art of Facilitation has nearly 100,000 views. Email him at Email him at

April 2020
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