The art of strategic planning in unprecedented times

by | Mar 26, 2020

One month? Two months? Maybe three? Most data suggest COVID-19 will peak within three months in the United States, but it could be with us for much longer, with possible new resurgences over the next 18 months. Pandemics will recur. What then, should you be asking yourself, as a business leader?

Advice from The Art of War – “Stand like a mountain, flow like the water” – rings as true today as it was when it was first attributed to Sun Tzu more than two millennia ago. It’s what great generals, crocodiles and 3M each have in common – an ability to adapt and weather change in turbulent times. It may take slightly different forms and flavors, but the ability to reconfigure your strategic plan to account for new circumstances is your inoculation. Listen in.

Be a crocodile

Be patient and indiscriminate. Crocodiles aren’t picky eaters. They’ll eat almost anything they can find and sink their teeth into. In other words, diversification of your revenue stream is key. Invest in strategic planning programs that help you surface business opportunities. Even if they are initially costly, with the right process and the right team, revenue will come. Speak to your customers, what are they telling you? Distill what they have told you into business opportunities. Map your industry’s landscape, where do you fit in the bigger picture? This exercise will help you identify whitespace so that, like the crocodile, you can attack  opportunities that surface. I can guarantee you will, at the very least, have a much better idea of where you stand today. The likely outcome is you will be positioned to respond (or even preempt) market shifts with new products and services your customers want, with an ability to scale, stop or pivot. You will undoubtedly be positioned for the future.

  • Speak to your customers to surface needs and opportunities
  • Map your industry to identify whitespace

Figure 1 – The Innovator’s Dilemma Curve

Be 3M

Experiment and diversify. What do you know 3M for? Post-It Notes? N95 particulate respirators? Home improvement hooks? Or jet engine adhesive? 3M is a master of experimentation and was able to boost its market cap by 5 percent while the rest of the industry declined by 45 percent in the early 2010s. It has experimented so much that some ideas (opportunities) were bound to work. Create this culture of idea generation where failure is tolerated in exchange for shared learnings. Allow your employees to collaborate and share ideas (Google is known for this, too). If those ideas are widely supported, let small teams run with them backed by a small amount of capital, allowing them to scale. This will either accelerate failures and turn them into learnings with feedback loops, or create new success stories. Rewarding experimentation makes the organization more robust by filtering out what doesn’t work and adopting products and services that fit the market. A kind of natural selection.

  • Generate ideas and experiment with feedback loops
  • Fund new ideas for products and services

Figure 2 – Feedback loop

Be a general

Be disciplined and plan. “If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.” Remember that quote from General Eric Shinseki? Identify your objectives and plan your course of action in aiming to reach them. You’ve spoken to your customers, distilled opportunities, mapped your current position in the greater industry and encouraged your team. It’s time to frame your action plan. Place the business opportunities against the needs of your audience (employees and customers), this will help you frame your strategy. Your mission and vision will fasten this strategy into place. Start with the end in mind and use a roadmap with clear milestones to measure velocity and growth.

  • Frame your strategy through needs and business opportunities
  • Use a roadmap to measure progress

Figure 3 – Roadmap


The process of adaptation requires first and foremost flexibility and discipline. Most companies plan, but successful companies assume everything will not always go according to plan. They’re able to adjust plans midstream when facing an infinite number of possible random events with a disciplined approach – and rigorous application of planning processes and tools. As a result, these more agile companies are best equipped to maintain relevance and a competitive edge when faced with significant market disruptions.

As Sun Tzu also reminds us, every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.

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Alex Abboud


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