We the Partnership

Strategic planning during uncertain times

November 2, 2020

By Michael Lawyer

This year has made a mockery of every “Vision 2020” plan written in the last two decades. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this shouldn’t be a surprise. As President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

This is an important distinction. Last February, few strategic plans could have predicted the challenges we face today. And no plan written today can know what the world will look like next February, much less in the years ahead. 

So what do we do?

Create a strategic plan based on values

While we can’t predict the future, we can envision one and plan accordingly. This requires us to reflect on both our personal core values and the values of our workplaces. Just like budgets, strategic plans serve as values statements that outline a vision for your company or organization. While it may be difficult to articulate your team’s values, a good strategic document will provide renewed clarity about what your group contributes to the mission and why. This is no easy task – but the truly important work is rarely easy. 

Once you’re clear on your personal and workplace values, remember that predicting the environment you’ll be implementing them in is still all but impossible. In normal times, the key to effective implementation is efficient systems. In unpredictable times, it’s adaptable people.

Invest in adaptable people

People that understand the values of their organization know how they contribute to the organization’s mission. When circumstances change, an adaptable workforce can reconfigure roles and processes to accommodate inevitable changes.

Adaptability is both a skill and a mindset. Like all skills, training can help, but it’s best learned through practice. Organizations can build adaptability in their workforce by giving employees opportunities to changes roles, respond to staff-driven process updates, serve details in other areas or work on short-term and side projects.

Employers can also screen for adaptability in the hiring process. When tenured employees leave, managers often hire to replace the skills and experience lost, even if they are not the skills that will be needed in the future. Forward-thinking managers, however, will hire for adaptability and the ability to develop new skills that will be needed in the future.

Even without knowing precisely what skills will be needed, agencies can take many practical steps to improve the way they hire new talent. There are also some hiring paths, like the Presidential Management Fellows or Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, which draw  talent that has already been screened for the potential to grow and adapt to new circumstances. By selecting new hires for their adaptability, and continuing to develop the adaptability of your existing team, you can build an organization that can execute on your organizational values in almost any circumstance.

In 10 years, the strategic plans you write today might look as out of touch as the plans you wrote a decade ago. But the people you hire and develop will continue to serve, even if the America they serve has changed from the way it is today. Plan for that because planning is everything. 

Michael Lawyer is a federal workplace expert who has spent two decades helping people find and act on their call to serve. He currently serves in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and on the board of directors for the Presidential Management Alumni Association.