COVID-19 is bringing disruption to practically every organization’s business and financial model. At the same time, for many of us in the NGO sector, it is requiring an all-hands approach to meeting the current needs of the moment—responding in real time to the crisis and working longer and harder each day to do it. And, of course, doing it as a distributed team with everyone working from home.
So, where and how do you insert the time to strategically plan for the future? How do you do it without a “strategy retreat?” How do you even know where to start with the current pace of change (where every day feels like a month) and the unprecedented uncertainty?
Our team at Humentum embarked on crafting a new strategy for a mid- and post-COVID world starting in March and found the process to be remarkably productive (if not a bit exhausting.) We have identified some pitfalls and lessons learned along the way that may help you and your team conduct your own strategic planning process.
A few caveats. We were already working as a fully remote team across eight countries and eleven time zones—so we could draw on that experience. We had already started a strategy process—so we could pivot that process as opposed to starting a new one. We are a relatively small team—so you may need to adapt our approach to your organization’s size.
1. Embrace the uncertainty—and allow your team to really immerse themselves in it
In this context, you will be grappling with both the global uncertainty generated by the pandemic, as well as the individual level uncertainties facing each team member. Your process can meet them where they are at.
Our strategy workshop was spread across four days in a seven business day cycle. We started each day with an extended time period for people to just “check in.” How were they feeling? What was going in that day? Were they energized, lagging? Anxious, sad? To be able to do deep intellectual work where we want to embrace how our organization and work might evolve, you have to create space and a process to help people engage that both honors their current “headspace” but also helps them check it at the virtual door. We used several approaches: open dialogue, short mindfulness sessions, a prior day reflection, etc.
We also prepared three scenarios for how the world might look 12-18 months in the future. In another time, or in a larger organization, you might spend days doing in-depth research to craft the scenarios. Not now! We quickly used insights we were gleaning from our members, our partners, and some quick web research on emerging thought leaders’ views, as well as history from the 1918 pandemic, to generate three light weight scenarios to ground our thinking. The Fog, the Slinky, and the Crossroads became our team’s shorthand for the three unique scenarios mapping the complexities and uncertainties we were grappling with.
Each team of three to four participants were assigned to one scenario. They spent most of the virtual retreat working in their scenario—becoming our team’s internal subject matter expert on it. They spent one day building out the scenario in more detail: what might it mean for our sector, what might it mean for Humentum? What big questions emerge? They spent another day generating potential strategic options for Humentum in terms of our response. They spent the third day refining those options based on feedback from the broader team.
2. Rigorously challenge your ideas—there are tools and techniques that can help
One of the risks of any strategy process are the traps of groupthink and confirmation bias. The risks can be higher in a remote setting as the format. If not accommodated for, a virtual setting can encourage fewer people to speak up, can lead more easily to a dominant opinion emerging, and can cause some people to feel more reluctant to speak up if they are uncomfortable with the technology. You can address these risks both with the use of different tools as well as some facilitation techniques. Throughout the process, we used Mural as our primary space to capture ideas, thoughts, and actions. We love this tool because (1) it enables so much of the same flip-charting and active facilitation that we are accustomed to in face to face sessions, (2) it is dynamic—meaning it can evolve with you during the event and post-event allowing for extended collaboration, and (3) can support both synchronous and asynchronous knowledge capture which allows reflective team members more space to contribute. And unlike a shared Google Doc or similar, it is visual which supports more creative energy.
Tools are not enough. You also need to design facilitation approaches that challenge your thinking and assumptions. We used three techniques in this event that worked really well: Killer Questions, Six Hats and the Coconut Shy. All the approaches were designed to undermine groupthink and confirmation bias by expressly asking us to go deeper, challenge assumptions, and not follow the lead of the first person to respond. Six Hats was very useful when we started to examine different strategic responses. It allowed people to take on a specific role, which often would be out of character for them. It also made sure we looked at a set of responses from a wide variety of angles. How many meetings have you been in where the entire room’s conversation is set in motion by the first person’s comment—and whether people agree or disagree? Six Hats is designed to overcome that flaw. In a Zoom meeting, this exercise is particularly useful to surface a wide range of views from more people.
3. Balance the intensity and focus with time to reflect
Typically, when working on strategy, you might pull everyone into a strategic offsite and work, eight, ten, or more hours per day for a couple of days or a week. That’s what we had planned for late March until COVID-19 emerged onto the scene ending all international travel. Running this type of experience virtually required some adjustments. First, we had people in five different time zones—eight hours apart. We needed to flex the time to make sure no one started before 6:00am or ended after 9:00pm. Then we needed to accommodate the fact that we all had other work to manage and were at home with family commitments. Finally, we wanted to also acknowledge that being in a video conference for too long is difficult. So, we settled on two sessions a day; one for two hours in plenary and another for three hours in working groups with a one-hour break in between. Yet, a lesson learned was that even that was too long and too intense. Despite having a lot of experience with online meetings, we found the deep mental activity of the planning effort to be much more tiring virtually compared with in-person. In addition, these events were combined with the emotional fatigue from the early weeks of the pandemic and the extra hours we all were putting in to manage our day-to-day workloads. So, when planning your retreat, consider a longer duration event with shorter bursts of activity. You will also get the benefit of more time to reflect and learn in between sessions.
4. Keep the energy (and laughs) coming
What did work were our energizers and games that kept the energy up and the smiles on people’s faces. We did a virtual karaoke version of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. We used our arms on the Zoom Gallery view to try to create a square on the screen. We played rapid rounds of an office scavenger hunt as we all had to find items that were red, blue, soft, heavy, etc. in our workspaces, and so on. Scenario planning and strategic work are important and especially now can lead to critically important decisions. Yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t help our team to think more clearly, and probably come up with more creative outcomes because they are a bit more relaxed, energized, and open.