It must have been in Year 2 that ancient humans realized the uncertainty—unpredictability—of the future. The weeks and months have never been linear extensions of the ones before, and there have always been events that seemed to come out of the blue. This fact has not stopped us from trying to predict the future, even though no one ever has nor ever will. The best it gets is that we make good guesses, some of which turn out to be right.
So, with this in mind, along with the epic degree of uncertainty of the current moment, why plan at all? If things are inherently uncertain and unpredictable anyway, and if the COVID-19 pandemic just makes them even more so, what value is there in an extensive and time-consuming planning exercise when events may overtake even the best-made plans? And, especially now, when uncertainty abounds in every direction, what use is there in strategizing for the future?
These are good questions and the challenge they pose to conventional models of strategic planning is formidable. But, remembering American General (and later President) Dwight D Eisenhower’s statement that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” we believe there is tremendous value in boards and management teams discussing strategy, maybe now more than ever. There is much less value in formulating detailed, step-by-step plans, but the importance of having strategic intent has never been greater.
The trick is to recognize that one is not talking about just one possible future; indeed, the current pandemic and consequent economic forces could play out in a whole range of ways. With that backdrop, what becomes most important are the scenarios we think through and the strategies that we anticipate, because in the heat of the moment is not the right time to have such conversations.
The exercise of scenario building and strategic planning makes us more agile and better able to adapt as the situation changes around us. Simply hunkering down to ride out the storm is almost certain to render our schools weaker in the end. The strategic imperative of the moment is to figure out how to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger as an institution, and it is toward this end that strategy-making is more vital, not less.