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Using strategy to weather the storm

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How strategy can be used to help organisations weather the storm, as seen by Tim Wilson, former director of performance programme at NCVO Charities Evaluation Services.

Current times are unusually turbulent. During periods of uncertainty it can feel foolish to plan very far in advance. It is easy to be upbeat during a boom and to hatch schemes for growth, development and innovation. When there is so much anxiety about the future, it’s tempting to see the carefully planned strategy as the wrong tool for the moment. But even though strategy is harder during a recession, it remains a vital exercise.

Taking charge of your strategic planning

 Good strategic planning begins with four fundamental questions:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • What do we need in order to get there?

These questions are valid even during recession and time spent talking with others to arrive at the answers will be for the long term benefit of the charity and its users.

Weaknesses easily overlooked during good times, may sink an organisation in bad times if left unaddressed. By talking to each other we can identify weak areas and clarify current statements of purpose such as the vision, mission, aims and organisational values.

Including a wide range of people in these discussions allows the insight of trustees, managers, volunteers, frontline staff and service users to emerge. When faced with turbulence, people may be more ready to share what they think could be improved.

Recessions bring anxiety, which can quickly lead to a loss of confidence. A strategic planning exercise is a proactive response because it gives people a place where they can start to assess the uncertainties and ‘gossip’ that may otherwise escalate.

It is unlikely that the chief executive and trustee committee alone will be able to make full sense of how the environment is changing. Having every staff member and volunteer engaged in the task of spotting changes and identifying opportunities for strengthening the organisation creates the sense that we are pulling together through the difficulties.

Setting a course for your strategy plan

By involving staff in this way, expectations may be raised that all those niggles which infuriate people will be solved overnight, so the next step is to move swiftly on to where we want to be. It may be helpful to identify several of the options which have emerged from the discussions and to summarise these as pithy ‘strategic directions’.

Strategic directions are similar to aims in that they describe what you want to achieve, or what you want to do differently. They don’t, however, need to be written as tightly as aims because their purpose is to encourage further discussion - which directions are realistic, which are desirable and which excite people with their potential? A good strategic direction will be a memorable statement of intent, so keep it short and clear.

Time spent discussing the direction with all relevant parties ensures there is clarity around where the organisation is heading and impresses people they are part of something useful. It also emphasises that you want to keep people engaged.

We may get blown off course a couple of times on the route towards our goal, and when this happens the organisation will benefit from the insight of the people involved in generating ideas during the initial direction setting.

Allowing some detours in your strategy plan

Detailed delivery plans take time to develop, and can generate strong emotions when found to be out of date. During turbulent periods it is important to stay flexible enough to respond to change, and so beneath the strategic direction, any detail can be reserved for monthly action plans with realistic targets. These can be reviewed regularly and quickly, and help avoid the organisation drifting too far off course.

Together, the strategic direction and the rolling action plans should give enough information to articulate a clear sense of purpose. When staff  know the direction and have the authority to deal with day-to-day operational issues, the chief executive can be out and about, visibly engaging with others, rather than stuck at the office fighting fires.

Remaining bold in your strategic direction

Where there is a general mood of pessimism, a typical strategic direction could be summarised as ‘hunker down and survive’. That is, preserving core business activities and ensuring that the organisation is in a reasonably healthy state when the economic cycle begins to pick up. But unless it is absolutely unavoidable, there are three reasons why we should be bolder.

The first is motivational. Our staff and volunteers will still need the optimism associated with a good strategy, knowing that even though times are tough the organisation is striving to achieve something more valuable than just viability.

The second reason is environmental. If all else is changing around us then we may have to change too. The needs of our users, of our funders and of our partners will change in response to the recession, and new competitors are likely to emerge who see untouched opportunities.The assumption that environmental change will be progressive and manageable and that when we reach the end of the recession, things will return to ‘business as usual’ is unrealistic.

Focusing on survival alone can lead to contraction and ossification, leaving the organisation weaker. If we ‘hunker down’ we duck the opportunity to improve our weaknesses and we risk finding ourselves or our cause eclipsed by others.

The third reason is to do with feelings of control. In tough times we can be called to respond to crisis after crisis, leaving us feeling frazzled and powerless. Without any sense of where we want to get to, this feeling can only grow. With a clear purpose, widely understood within the organisation, it will be easier to keep a cool head and respond effectively and nimbly to what is happening.

Having confidence in your strategy

Strategy can be used to rise above the turbulence. Pinpointing the direction of travel can motivate and bring people together as they work on identifying the organisation’s real priorities. If plans are left flexible then everyone should feel more confident to deal with the unexpected.

Tim Wilson

February 2009

Page last edited Dec 09, 2016

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