Choices in a crisis v choices for renewal

“We’re out of the whack-a-mole phase” according to one CEO I spoke to this week.

As organisations move beyond the day-to-day crisis mode of the last few weeks, they are starting to turn to longer term questions.

The tools you use to make decisions in the first phase of a crisis are different to the ones you need to plan for the future. Crisis planning tends to be inward-looking. Longer-term thinking must be outward-looking.

This needs a different set of questions and a different set of tools.

In the first phase of a crisis, you need to set priorities aggressively. This means a ruthless focus on the most important things and cutting/ignoring everything else. The first framework (below) is the sort of tool you can use to protect the essential parts of your mission. It tells you where to focus and what to ignore.

But once you’ve done that, you need to think more about what the future world looks like and your place in it. The world will change though it’s impossible to predict how. There will be new opportunities and threats. There’s a need for more creative strategic thinking.

Most of the time people tend to use the same approach to strategy regardless of the context.

The current moment shows why that doesn’t work. Lots of organisations have established daily briefings, “Gold Teams” and other special formats for making rapid decisions.

What got you through the first phase of crisis might not be right for the longer term.

As you think about the longer term, frameworks that incorporate external perspectives and your place in the world become more useful. The need to make aggressive short-term decisions doesn’t go away, but needs to supplemented.

The strategy palette (Martin Reeves) is useful in this context. We covered it in this article (

Reeves argues that your environment, and your capacity to shape it, should determine your approach to strategy.

Environments differ along three axes: predictability — the extent to which you can forecast it; malleability — the extent to which you can shape it; and harshness — the extent to which you can survive it.

Right now most people are in environments that are unpredictable and harsh. The extent to which we can shape it is unknown. That puts most of us in the “Renewal” phase.

And the ways we think about renewal have to be different to the ways that we have thought about survival.

Making better strategy – a breakfast discussion

Firetail recently published an article called “How do we make better strategy?” inspired by conversations we have been having with our clients.

In these conversations, our clients describe a sense of urgency, brought about by a rapidly changing landscape and a desire to improve the way their organisations are responding.

The world is changing fast, fundamental assumptions are being challenged, uncertainty is high and many describe tougher market conditions. Traditional strategic plans and tools are not helping them to address these issues.

Last month, we hosted a breakfast bringing together a dozen senior leaders from organisations working on social progress to discuss these issues.

This article summarises the discussion. It covers how people think about strategy, the practical challenges they face and some of the steps they were taking to make better strategy.

Continue reading “Making better strategy – a breakfast discussion”

How can we make better strategy?

At Firetail, we spend a lot of time thinking about how organisations interested in social progress should think about “strategy”.

When we talk to Chief Executives about strategy, we consistently hear the following questions:

  • How should we set strategy in a world that seems to be changing quickly?
  • How could we approach long-range strategy differently?
  • How can we connect the insights in our strategic plan to our daily decisions?
  • What’s different about strategy for social progress and purpose-driven organisations?

Over the summer, we want to bring people together through a series of articles and events to consider these questions. We will look to the future, explore specific challenges and seek insights from our clients’ experiences.

This first article is a survey of the latest thinking about strategy. It attempts to address why so many people are frustrated with their current approach to strategic plans, and what to do about it.

Continue reading “How can we make better strategy?”

New Atlantis Ventures

Visit the new website

I’ve just launched New Atlantis Ventures with a business partner to work with early-stage entrepreneurs to build successful, high-impact companies driven by science.

Our approach is underpinned by four assumptions:

  1. The world needs more innovation. Start-ups bringing innovative ideas and intellectual property to life is a smart way to tackle the biggest challenges in the world. There is long-term value in these ideas.
  2. Building things is difficult. Start-ups are fragile and easily broken. Entrepreneurs need resources, support and access to networks as they build sustainable businesses around their insights.
  3. Early choices matter. Entrepreneurs need guides to help them avoid the obvious mistakes. Most start-ups fail to realise their potential, often because early choices reduce future options.
  4. No-one succeeds alone. Trust is everything and team dynamics are crucial. Smart capital beats dumb money, so partners and investors need to be chosen carefully.

There’s a white paper that explains what we’re trying to achieve.

A new politics?

The Westminster model can’t function in a world of networks and rapid climate change because it was made for a world long gone. Brexit will inevitably, and rightly, dominate the headlines in the next few days and weeks. But this seismic shock to our body politic is merely a symptom of the democratic decay that needs to be addressed whether or not we leave the EU. We need a politics that’s genuinely and transformatively new. But it won’t be found behind podiums for elites in Westminster. It will be built on platforms for everyone

A new politics? That lies with the people, not the Independent Group

The new Firetail Brand

In the summer, we decided to rebrand Firetail, in order to refresh the way we talk about our work, showcase some of our incredible clients and introduce our great team.

It also gave us a moment to reflect. The world has changed a great deal since the firm launched over ten years ago.

Everything is connected and nothing makes sense.

Or at least, it seems that way. 

Popular sentiment around the world appears to be turning inward and looking backward. Debates are simplistic, reductive and negative. Securing funds for important causes is difficult. The landscape for our clients has never been more competitive and for many, their future has never looked more uncertain. In many places, the space for civil society is closing.

But there are many reasons for optimism. It has never been cheaper to make a difference, or turn an idea into action. If you are interested in social progress, you have new tools and technologies to make change happen. It is possible to engage large numbers of people. There are more opportunities for partnership, with new types of partner. The idea of “purpose” is becoming mainstream, especially in parts of business, higher education and social investment.

People now recognise that the big issues are all interconnected, needing interdisciplinary answers, creative approaches and surprising coalitions. Power is shifting, slowly.

It’s a complicated world, but I have always believed that if you address it in a positive, open, inclusive way you can get the future you want. 

Continue reading “The new Firetail Brand”

Using Scenario Planning to Reshape Strategy

Rather than trying to predict the future, organizations need to strengthen their abilities to cope with uncertainty. A new approach to scenario planning can help companies reframe their long-term strategies by developing several plausible scenarios.

Ramirez, R., Churchhouse, S., Palermo, A., & Hoffmann, J. (2017). Using scenario planning to reshape strategy. MIT Sloan Management Review, 58(4).

This article by Rafael Ramirez and Ale Palermo in the MIT Sloan Management Review explores how to run scenario planning exercises and integrate long-term thinking about the future with organisational strategy.

It uses the methodology and approach that Firetail designed and ran for the Royal Society of Chemistry in its “Future of the Chemical Sciences” project.

Why it’s hard to make money with co-working spaces

[Half a thought about business strategy, developed over coffee with @alsteve1]

Co-working spaces offer desks to freelancers and small businesses on short-term contracts. The gap in the market comes about because traditionally landlords want to let buildings on long leases to one occupier, whilst freelancers only want a desk and don’t want to commit for years.

As work is changing, (we all work for ourselves in smaller, more temporary groups), this gap is going to get bigger. The demand for office space provided on a variable cost basis will likely increase.

But providing co-working space as a service probably won’t be a great business to be in.

Continue reading “Why it’s hard to make money with co-working spaces”

When Straight-Line Planning doesn’t work

I co-authored an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review calling for more collaboration in fundraising


Fundraisers often think in straight lines—in terms of steady, predictable growth, based on assumptions that results for a given approach will be roughly proportional to the amount of time, money, and effort invested. The typical strategy is to pilot a small number of ideas to get a sense of costs and pay-offs, and then scale them up based on what the organization has learned.

However, in a networked world, the assumptions that payoffs are proportional to efforts or that pilots scale predictably are often inaccurate, and nonprofits may need to modify their approaches accordingly.

The Class of 2030

Firetail have just published some original research in the future of Global Higher Education.


It’s had some nice launch coverage in the Times Higher Education Supplement:

Andy Martin, director of Firetail, said that while “the top few hundred ranks [in the URAP] are pretty stable”, there is much more volatility in the mid-ranked positions below the top 500. Within this range he identified Australia, China, Poland and Turkey as key countries that are moving up, while the US, Japan, Canada and the UK are generally losing ground.

“It’ll come as no surprise that Chinese universities are making the most dramatic gains” in the middle of the ranking, he told THE. “Their average position has gained from around 1,300 to nearer 950.”

He said that the most interesting characteristic is that these universities are deliberately planning for global success, adding that they are “globally aware and outward-looking, but take into account their local and social context”.

“For now, they will not replace elite universities or make them less relevant, but they are quickly improving and if traditional players don’t respond they will keep on rising straight to the top,” he added.

Mr Martin said that the main challenge faced by rising universities in strong higher education climates will be “finding a point of difference and a distinct place in the landscape” while those with a less established higher education and research and development environment will rely heavily on government policy and investment.

The full report is here: