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AndrewHumphreys
Andrew Humphreys

Apr 8, 2022, 1:00 PM

Long-term planning: lessons for charity leaders from the pandemic

It’s that time again, to produce the next long-term plan for your organisation.

We all know the drill: engage stakeholders, set objectives and milestones to be met at every critical stage, agree resourcing, delegate responsibilities and set the organisation off, like a well-oiled machine, to achieve everything we’ve planned for the next five years.

Now that we’ve made the plan, we can just return to it at the end and see how well we’ve done.

But there’s a problem, isn’t there?

Are we really in control?

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re not really in control; at least, not as much as we thought we were. Through my experience as a consultant working with senior teams as they set out their long-term plans, a common theme has been setting goals, or seeking outcomes, that are outside the organisation’s realistic control. An example that comes to mind straight away is district councils seeking to improve educational attainment among their populations.

While this is undoubtedly a laudable endeavour, education is not actually within the remit of lower tier councils, so there isn’t much they can do, apart from working with their upper-tier/county council partner to help them achieve this goal. I wonder what other laudable goals organisations have chosen to adopt, the realisation of which sits outside of their control.

So how do we make long-term plans in a (post) pandemic world? The easy answer is “we don’t” and, as tempting as it may be to maintain the holding pattern many of us have been stuck in over the last year or so, now is the time to move forward on a different basis. The static long-term plans of the past that attempt to decide as much as possible up front will not help us achieve our goals nearly as much in a less stable and faster moving world.

The reality is more unexpected events will happen. Whether it is future COVID-19 waves, global conflict or economic downturns, or something we simply can’t imagine now, the conditions in which we operate will change over the duration of any long-term plans we make.

There must be a better way – and there is

We’ve been well trained to plan backwards from where we want to get to, eg “In five years’ time, we want to have doubled in size”, so the standard way of planning is working backwards from our intended destination and working out logical steps in reverse that will enable us to get there. The problem is, time happens forwards and not backwards, so as soon as we veer off our idealised plan, there is no way back to the path we set out for ourselves.

The other danger with setting out fixed plans is that we run the risk of designing decision making out of our organisations, which is disempowering to our managers and sometimes even delivery staff.

“When things change the most, people cling to what they know the best.” If you haven’t heard that adage, you’ve probably experienced it. The temptation, during a time of uncertainty, is to try to fix our plans to be even more sure they are guaranteed to succeed. This is because we’ve all been given the false expectation that, as leaders and managers, our job is to control the outcomes that our organisations deliver. However, managing is not always the same as controlling.

We need to build flexibility into our long-term plans. Instead of trying to fix everything up front, which will undoubtedly lead to a significant overhaul later when our plans aren’t realised, our long-term plans need to be designed as decision making frameworks.

Instead of setting out milestones that we assume we’ll hit at certain points in the future, we need to set out decision points, at which we review progress towards our objectives, and have clear parameters for deciding what to do next, whether those parameters relate to external conditions or the real world results of actions taken thus far.

Instead of our long-term plans being disempowering, as people in our organisations are told, “It’s a great idea but it’s not in the plan,” we need to make our plans empowering by setting out which decisions will need to be made at different stages of implementation, who will make those decisions and on what basis.

Make the switch

The more responsive we make our organisations to unexpected events, the leaner and more agile they will become. With that, the more they will be focused on those things that really matter and on delivering the outcomes that are important to us.

If you’re stuck on long-term planning, or if you want to make the switch from static plans – that will almost certainly not be fulfilled – to flexibility and empowerment, then we’d be delighted for one of our expert consultants to have a conversation with you about making that switch.

Andrew Humphreys

You can contact Action Planning by emailing info@actionplanning.co.uk. Or call 01737 814758.

Andrew Humphreys is a service improvement and change specialist with a deep understanding of organisational cultures and how to affect change within them. He has worked for nearly 20 years in the voluntary and public sectors, mostly in a management capacity, and now works as a consultant to improve the quality of work in these sectors.