Expecting the Unexpected

by Kristen Merrifield

Planning for the unexpected: Is there really a way to do that? It seems counterintuitive and darn near impossible. How do we as leaders even begin to start to plan for something we do not foresee ever happening? If you had told me in January that we would all be quarantined to our homes for several months, wearing masks when we got out in public and homeschooling our kids, I would have laughed out loud. Either that, or I would have thought you were recapping your latest zombie Netflix binge. 

But that is where we all found ourselves in mid-March. I would dare say that this was the first pandemic any of us have ever lived through — much less led through. Admittedly, we all had to adapt as we went and rely on the knowledge and lessons learned along the way. A colleague of mine even suggested capturing these experiences into a “Pandemic Leadership for Dummies” book. There may be some merit in that.

One thing that has become increasingly clear, though, is how unprepared many of us are when it comes to crisis communication, business contingency plans and budget scenario planning. The truth of the matter is that the unthinkable can and will happen, and, as leaders, it is up to us to be ready to navigate our organizations and teams out of the catastrophic storm in which we currently find ourselves. Whether the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been immediate for your nonprofit or business, or you’re bracing for what’s to come, you should be proactively preparing for the possible paths ahead. One way to do this is scenario budget planning. 

Let me state this up front: It’s very likely all of your anticipated scenarios will be wrong because there are so many unknowns right now — but so is your old budget. Predicting the future is not actually the goal here. Rather, scenario planning is intended to give you an ordered way of thinking and making decisions. It’s meant to help turn those “what if?” questions into “what we will do if … ” plans. 

Start with what you don’t know. What unknowns are weighing on you the most? What will have the biggest impact and require the quickest decisions (e.g., that June conference or September fundraiser)? You can’t address everything right away, and again, doing so would paralyze you. Get clarity on what’s most important. 

As a team, identify two to three scenarios. Remember, frame these as possible stories that could unfold and avoid diving directly into the spreadsheet and numbers. Gather the information you do have with input from people and communities who would be affected. Then, think about what timeframe you want to focus on. Be creative but realistic.

Put your plans to use. Once you’ve mapped out a few scenarios, start assessing which one feels the most likely or necessary. Start building a more specific plan from there that you can use as an implementation tool. 

Revise and communicate your plan. As more unknowns become known, and more knowns shift into the unknown, you will need to revise your plan. Eliminate those scenarios that are unlikely to be useful. Identify new scenarios to explore. Your leadership team should be clear on who is helping to inform the plan and who is making decisions.

The only way out is onward. Planning for a future with so many unknowns, especially when people and communities depend on you in some way, is hard and draining work. We are in the “messy middle” between the old way and the new way. However, onward is the only way out. 

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