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.

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?”

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.

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.

Lessons from Civil Society

I wrote a blog for the London School of Economics on the lessons academics can learn from civil society when thinking about their impact.
Academics should ask themselves three questions when thinking about the impact of their research to help form a broader understanding of how their work operates beyond reductive measurables.