Planning for Possibilities

It’s 2021 and we need to understand why planning for possibilities is important. What a difference a month makes! After too long in darkness, we’ve seen movement (despite some setbacks) in deploying COVID vaccines. Plus, we have a new administration in Washington, with the first female, first Black and first Asian-American vice president of the United States, and the first Black secretary of defense, making the celebration of this Black History Month even more significant for our diverse nation.
These historic events have energized America. People are starting to talk about a “New Normal.” This could be premature. Things will remain uncertain for the immediate future. We must all remain flexible as new developments become clear and make sure we are planning for possibilities to come. The world will certainly be a different place post-COVID-19. So many things will change. Consider just this shortlist when planning for possibilities:
  • Health care
  • Education
  • Climate concerns
  • The economy
  • How and where we work
  • Live performing arts events
  • How nonprofits fundraise
  • And much, much more

I’m sure you can add additional topics to the list; few social institutions will remain unchanged.

Planning for Possibilities

While none of us can be certain how the world will look by the end of 2021, it doesn’t mean this isn’t a time for careful evaluation and planning. Chief executives should make an extra effort to seek feedback from constituents, assessing their critical needs, and then engage their boards in exploring new directions. Leaders must encourage their staff to work together to build a consensus view, and then to manage the consequences by being prepared to adapt and course-correct as required.

Planning for possibilities is about creating an awareness of possible outcomes, not necessarily trying to put a rigid roadmap in place. It’s not necessarily what will happen. It’s what might happen.

While I was CEO of Applied Materials, when times were good, we prepared for the next downturn. But, just as important, we prepared also for the possibility that things would turn out even better than our more optimistic projections.

We rarely met all of our plan objectives at Applied. That wasn’t the gauge for success. We would look at three or four high-impact things that might happen, positive or negative, and build contingency plans around those outcomes. I call this “facing the elevator door.” Things are never static. The elevator is always moving, either going up or going down. We tried to keep in mind that when the elevator was moving up we should be prepared to take advantage of every opportunity by planning for possibilities.

Of course, all of this is tough psychologically on staff, as they deal with prolonged ambiguity. Leaders must motivate their teams to stay focused through difficult events, driven by outside forces, forces they can’t control. As I’ve suggested previously, you’ve got to paint a path that acknowledges their stress, while also offering optimism and confidence.

Last month I asked you to identify the three toughest problems that your organization expects to face in the first half of 2021. Let’s take it another step. Here’s my challenge for you in February, 2021:

  1. Write down three things that might happen this year, both bad and good. For example, COVID variants might undermine the vaccination program. Or improved vaccine development and distribution might find the U.S. reaching herd immunity by summer. The economy is still precarious, but new stimulus programs in Washington might seed a fast turnaround, encouraging additional donations. A re-commitment to the important objective of racial justice and equity shifts funding priorities substantially. You see what I’m getting at.
  2. Consider the impact each of these could have on your organization: which is a threat, and which is an opportunity. What actions might you take as a result?
Together with all of your staff, donors, volunteers and board members, let’s commit to facing the elevator door together.
In a spirit of optimism,
Jim Morgan