July 15, 2020

Throw Out Your Plans: Strategies For An Uncertain Future

“The lack of a plan only exacerbates disorientation in an already confusing situation. When drawing up the steps you intend to take, think broadly and deeply, and take a long view.”

                                                                                          —Preparing Your Business for a Post-Pandemic World
Carsten Lund Pedersen and Thomas Ritter

Right now it seems like the only thing certain is uncertainty. Guidelines, rules, and policies at all levels change almost daily with reports of the status of COVID-19. Our community is struggling with the reality of nationwide protests, with a new and greater realization of the racism and polarization of our country, and our need as a field to be more inclusive, just, and equitable.

Now is not the time to be flying blind. Many–if not all of you–are chin deep in dealing with masks, social distancing, timed ticketing, managing cash flow, and much more. But we also need to be thinking about what the new tomorrow looks like–planning for 2021 and beyond. Study after study show that during a crisis, those who planned for the long-term ended in a much stronger place post-crisis

Having a plan is further reinforced because it’s also important to donors and funding, both critical sources of support during these times. According to survey data by Charity Navigator, donors ranked “have a strategy and plan” factor tied for second in terms of importance.

What factors of effectiveness are most important in donor’s decision making:

  • 9.0 – Impact (performance data that shows impact of your donation)

  • 8.3 – Strategy (evidence of organization’s planning/strategy)

  • 8.3 – Cost per outcome (what your donation equates to)

  • 8.2 – Financial stability

  • 7.8 – Reputation (what others are saying)

  • 7.3 – Internal policies regarding DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion)

Yet, according to our Zoom poll, slightly less than half of the participants in our July 9th webinar had strategic plans that were three years old or less, while somewhat fewer had plans older than three years—all developed much before the current crisis. What should we be doing with these plans; how should we invest our scarce resources of time and money as we look forward? First, let’s take the long view and begin to look at various scenarios.

“For many of us, coronavirus is the biggest management challenge we’ve faced since 2008, and perhaps ever.

Don’t ignore it, don’t fight it head-on, but keep your head up and find a way to swim to the side. A good strategic plan for coronavirus finds a way to look beyond the immediate circumstances, recognize a small number of plausible scenarios that will result, and guide near-term actions with a clear view of how the world will be different once we emerge out the other side.”

—Steven Wunker,  CMO Network, Forbes.com

To see how three AZA CEOs are looking at their recently adopted plans, we invited Dolf DeJong of Toronto Zoo, Gary Siddall from the Aquarium of Niagara, and Norah Fletchall from the Buffalo Zoo to share their strategies on moving ahead in uncertain times. Here’s what we heard:

Dolf noted that they had “read the tea leaves” in doing their plan: two of their goals related directly to today’s situation—“diversity” and “technology.” To better reach their community, the Toronto Zoo now programs 18-hour days, accommodating smaller groups of guests and launching some early plan initiatives such as a food share program.

Gary reported that the Aquarium of Niagara is using their plan (approved just weeks before the pandemic) as a “pathway back to normal,” adjusting based on availability of resources and possibly extending their timeline a bit.

In a “city of entrepreneurs,” Norah noted that they were taking their one-year old plan and their soon-to-be launched master planning process as an opportunity to be more creative and embrace technology, commenting also that it was often easier to get commitments to “meetings” via Zoom than in person.

We also shared four steps to begin your planning for uncertainty:

  1. Envision your future

  2. Develop a strategy to walk back your future strategy to today

  3. Be prepared to learn and pivot…quickly

  4. Rally your team around your vision

  From: Leaders, Do You Have a Clear Vision for the Post-Crisis Future? by Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz

And how you can get started:

  • Create a Futures Team

  • Assess your model–business, operations, program–for relevance to the new tomorrow

  • Bring in and listen to new and outside voices

  • Identify and allocate resources to move ahead

More Takeaways

Discussion among panel and participants reinforced the need for a plan, especially during this time of uncertainty. Key points from our discussion follow:

  • “Conservation can’t wait”—the research and our colleagues’ recent experiences tell us that our conservation mission is more important than ever and our donors and guests value saving wildlife.

  • Keep your board informed, speak to their interests, and keep them in the loop. Invite them to do a “walk around” with you pre-opening to help identify potential trouble spots, and make them part of the solution.

  • If you have a “big” and complex plan, pare it down to the essentials so your team doesn’t feel overwhelmed and hopeless; make it more relevant to the current situation.

  • Explore new partnerships that might have been inaccessible pre-COVID-19—look globally.

  • Strategic plans will be shorter; review your plan, keep the basics, but adapt your tactics, timeline, and budget for the “new tomorrow.”

  • Do some research—listen to your guests, your community, and your staff for what’s important to them.

  • Be creative, nimble, flexible, and honest—don’t “sugar coat” the situation but tell the truth.

So—don’t throw out your plan, but do take a hard look at where you are—what should you grow, continue, or stop doing? How will you spend your scarce resources—time, money, and attention? We’ve listed some resources that can help you get started with “re-thinking” your plan—and as always, we’re here for you.

For help creating a plan to guide you through the uncertainty, reach out to the Zoo Advisors team today!

“For tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

African Proverb

Planning Resources: Click on each title to access the article

Click here to watch the recording of the full session.

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