Strategic planning can help organizations navigate unexpected challenges

by Jan Frazier, owner, PlanningPlus

While home with COVID-19 during December, I watched nearly every movie made about the 2008 housing crisis: Boiler Room, Wall Street, Margin Call, Too Big to Fail, The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street. It was interesting looking back at the beginnings of that financial disaster now that we have lived through it. But what I found most interesting was that every movie espoused the same philosophies — greed and self-interest. And that’s not just my interpretation: Every movie actually had those words spoken by one or more characters.

Times have changed … sort of. The 2008 financial crisis, in which little people got hurt but those too big to fail didn’t, was only a precursor to what would become an even worse economic crisis in this country, caused not by corporate greed but by a virus.

A lot of people got hurt, primarily those lowest on the economic scale in service and retail jobs. The government stepped in with myriad loans and stimulus payments, yet we are now hearing of rampant fraud and how some of that money was actually spent. Greed and self-interest?

So, I ask myself, what did we fail to learn? Or better yet, how can we take those lessons as leaders into our organizations?

Lesson 1. One of the critical mistakes Wall Street made prior to the housing crisis was to believe “housing never goes down.” They took their historic understandings of the market and assumed it would be business as usual. Of course, it wasn’t. They failed to consider threats, unknowns, and possible risks when making corporate decisions. They never considered the fact that the housing market would collapse.

As leaders, we must never assume anything. The donor who just loves us passes away or, worse, sends money elsewhere. Or the grant we have received for the last 20 years disappears, with little warning. A regulatory change upends everything. Hence, one of the key purposes of strategic planning. During an effective planning session, you will be asked to think about what might be the unthinkable — both wonderful and tragic — then consider the value of creating a Plan B. It’s important to look outward instead of focusing primarily inward and only what we can see.

Lesson 2. There was much behind-the-scenes juggling going on between the investors on Wall Street, the banks, and the government. Who wins? Who loses? Who is the example? It is critical to understand who your partners are, how you are valuing them, and establishing relationships so that a call or email gets answered. Identify a confidante or two since it’s lonely at the top. Again, during effective strategic planning, review who your partners are and how well you are connected because we often take those relationships for granted.

Lesson 3. Those who entered the housing market as buyers were treated as commodities, lumped together. Personal stories held no sway. Be sure that you treat each of your stakeholders as unique, whether large funder or individual donor. A prequel to any strategic plan should be to ensure the entire leadership staff knows who their stakeholders are and treat each one with respect.

Of course, as strategic planners, these issues tend to jump out at me and my colleagues. And we all need to be reminded during these uncertain times that if we don’t learn lessons from the past we are certainly doomed to repeat them.

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