Strategy and planning, Management

Strategy in hard times

Big and bold visions, lots of new ideas and plans to expand, develop and boldly go… It is different in 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.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 their purpose…

… what our values are and what we want to achieve in the short to medium term.

The alternative is to bounce between reacting to events, occasional crisis management and chasing any funding pot that might keep things going. One experienced voluntary sector manager described her organisation’s approach ‘If we have any kind of strategy its ‘that something will turn up’, but, we can’t continue just drifting from issue to issue’.

Here are eight approaches that organisations can use to develop a useful strategy that makes the 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 out activities contribute to our outcomes?  Outcomes that are relevant, challenging and also realistic can give 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 profile or bigger changes that could impact on what we do. Good strategy is about being one step ahead of the game. We need to commit time to spotting trends and possible changes that are in the pipeline and think through how might we respond. How can we turn threats into opportunities?

3. Work out what is core

It is easy to lose our focus and over spread the organisation. Sometimes we take on projects and activities that only vaguely relate to our purpose. It is useful to agree what is the organisation’s core purpose and 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 other 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 on side?

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 activites without proper support. Recognising that an activity has reached its end and being able to bring it to a positive end is a key strategic task.

Strategy is much more than producing a three year plan

In the times that we operate in 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.

Alan Lawrie is an independent consultant and author of Business and Strategic Planning.