Welcome to Peak Uncertainty. Population: You (and Your Team).
I have a dozen things I need to do and a half-dozen more ideas for what I could do differently, alongside a crushing sense that three-quarters of it doesn’t matter in the face of a global pandemic—but I don’t know which three-quarters.
Then there’s the siren call of twitter and the news singing false promises: read a bit more, scroll a bit further, to find the fresh take that will give me greater clarity.
We have to acknowledge the psychic toll this moment is taking on each of us. At the first level, even if my daily life somehow continued unchanged, I’d see a tax on my bandwidth from the awareness of what was happening and the shift that knowledge demands in my mental models of the world.
This gets worse at the next levels: the changes in personal habits, the new collaboration methods in our professional work, the potential new directions we need to take in that work, and so on.
How does one think—let alone plan, or act—during a global crisis?
My consulting practice advises social change organizations whose work, at the best of times, involves uncertainty. What are they supposed to do now?
I’ve had a few conversations with clients and colleagues in recent weeks about how nonprofits, foundations, and others are adjusting. I wanted to pause for a moment—so hard but necessary right now—and share a few things.
The future will never be less clear than it is now
We’re in Peak Uncertainty. By that, I’m not referring to the peak of the pandemic, but to the period where we have the least clarity and confidence on its status or trajectory. It started at least a week or two ago, and it’ll last another 2–3 weeks.
Also known as: the Trough of Certainty; the Nadir of Confidence; the Apex of Ambiguity. (Of course, we had even less understanding a month or two ago; but we had the illusion of clarity that permeated our old normal—a condition that supported our general ability to plan, focus, and get things done.)
Admittedly, my perspective is skewed by being in NYC, where “social distancing” has taken full force in the past week while testing is still catching up. The number of confirmed cases climbs daily, the risks we’ll run out of ventilators grows more real, and the potential lockdown timeline keeps extending.
Globally, we’re also just two weeks past the WHO’s official pandemic declaration. From about 100,000 confirmed cases worldwide at the beginning of March, we’ve passed 600,000 in the last few days. In the US, we’ve gone from 50 cases a month ago to over 100,000 as of Thursday, March 26th. (We were at 50,000 on Monday when I started drafting this post.)
Major risks remain as COVID-19 reaches new countries: How will it spread in recently urbanized mega-cities? How will historically weak health care systems in some sub-Saharan African countries cope? How will it intersect with ongoing refugee crises around Syria and elsewhere?
The exponential growth puts us on a dangerous trajectory, but I call this period Peak Uncertainty because I think we’ll understand that trajectory better in the coming weeks. Factors that will improve our clarity: better understanding of COVID-19’s epidemiology; better testing; social distancing measures showing impact (or not); and increased responses from public, private, and philanthropic sectors as (most) policymakers and other leaders recognize the reality of the crisis.
We’re not at peak pandemic or peak crisis—those are sadly still to come. But we’re in an especially difficult moment for seeing the future.
Responding in the now, the next, and the later
It seems most of us in the social change sectors have just barely made the personal-level adjustments (working from home, switching to virtual meetings, balancing childcare, etc.). And now we’re turning our attention to adjusting our work.
In my recent conversations, I’ve been using a 3x3 of considerations—at first implicitly, and now more explicitly. I’m sharing this here as a tool-in-progress for rapid planning in this moment of uncertainty, along with a few ideas for where to focus your attention as you use it.
The two dimensions are:
- Three planning levels: strategy, programs, operations.
- Three time horizons: now (this week), next (this month), later (2-6 months).
How to use this tool
Do a rapid run through this matrix—today. I know it seems like Peak Uncertainty means your plans are moot, and that you have no time for planning anyway, but the first two rules of planning (under any circumstances) are: 1) the planning is more important than the plan; and 2) when you feel like you don’t have time to plan is exactly the time to plan.
As you run through it, jot a few notes in each square, using the ideas below as suggestions. Don’t let it grow beyond a page, as a succinct snapshot will be more useful than a multi-page plan right now. When you complete it, that’s your plan for the coming week. Save it, then translate it into your to-do list or scribble tasks in your journal or whatever you do to keep yourself on track.
Next week, you’ll run through it again, with the prior week’s plan for comparison: check how you did on the “now” column; carry items forward; shift items from “next” to “now”; add new items; and ditch whatever no longer seems relevant.
You can also bring this into a meeting with your team or leadership colleagues, using it to structure conversations you may already be having.
Let’s run through the sections.
Now: this week
When the reality of the pandemic sank in, everyone started with the operations-now square: shifting to remote/virtual work, and taking care of their staff (hopefully) in this challenging moment.
Then, we saw organizations moving down into the programs-now square: figuring out what parts of their prior work could and should continue, while identifying mission-aligned ways to apply whatever flex capacity they have to this moment (e.g. advocacy groups calling for a #PeoplesBailout, foundations responding with loosened restrictions on grants and response funds for community-based nonprofits).
Next: this month
From there, we’ve mostly moved to the right: toward the operations-next and programs-next. Those are both leaving our collective heads’ spinning, precisely because we’re in this period of uncertainty. Nevertheless, we need to make some plans to avoid being caught completely off-guard.
Operationally, your current work on staff care and the remote/virtual shift should be followed by greater attention to team culture, policies, and processes: not everything will transition smoothly, so take this opportunity to re-design how you work together. (See here, here, and here for advice.) As part of this shift, consider how to give now-virtual teams and staff the right amount of autonomy to quickly respond to new opportunities.
You may also need to think about cash flow in the next month, depending on your business model. Organizations ramping up their responses may already feel a crunch, while some with longer-term programs and ongoing support may be buffered for a few more months.
Programmatically, the coming month is a good time to assess how your work will shift going forward. What’s still relevant, and what’s not? What’s no longer possible, and what might suddenly be possible? How can you make small-bet experiments on new approaches that you might later grow? You probably can’t make those choices now, but you’ll need space for them in the coming month.
These questions are especially hard because we haven’t yet reached a “new normal”: we face too many known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns. Over the coming month, we’ll see the uncertainty ebb; plan to be ready when it does.
Later: 2-6 months
Let’s keep moving right, into the operations-later and programs-later. Across both, scenario planning becomes important: what happens if your city stays in lockdown for three months? For six? What happens if your key funder(s) doesn’t renew a grant because they’re re-orienting toward COVID-19 response?
On the operations side, you need to move from cash flow to profitability analysis at some point. If your nonprofit has an aversion to the idea of “profitability”, view this instead is as assessing your operating model: does it still hold water? If not, what further adjustments (beyond those you made for cash flow) are needed?
Programmatically, you may be ready to make bigger shifts, beyond the short-term pivots and rapid adjustments you’ll make in the coming month.
Plan now for a time when you can make these assessments. For example, that might mean putting a (virtual) leadership retreat on the calendar for early May. Depending on the size and complexity of your organization, you may need to put processes in motion earlier to support those discussions.
Strategy in a time of uncertainty
A few of my current clients have been undergoing strategy processes in recent months, so naturally they’re trying to figure out what the pandemic means for their strategies going forward. I’d caution against completely re-orienting an ongoing strategy process, especially if you’re close to completing it, but it’s worth incorporating a pandemic lens (just as you might bring a gender lens, a justice lens, or an adaptation lens) to see if your assumptions still hold.
For those who aren’t actively re-strategizing at the moment, the 3x3 above lays out a few considerations. In strategy-now: re-articulate your mission for this moment. Tell your team, your members, your donors, and your partners why and how your work matters now. You’ve seen the emails from other organizations merely stating that their work is still relevant? They can ring hollow unless grounded in the unique dynamics of this crisis.
Also: look for signals, however weak, for changes in your context (sense) and work with others to understand them (sensemake) to inform your programmatic and operational changes.
Under strategy-next: within your current strategy, look for priorities that deserve greater or lesser emphasis—but resist the urge to throw out strategies or create new ones entirely. Building on what you were doing before is the surest way to ensure your providing unique value in this moment.
Finally, in strategy-later: revisit your core assumptions, because they might not hold in the new world. This would be hard (impossible?) right now, but as we emerge from this period in a few weeks, you’ll be better placed to do this re-assessment along with the scenario planning mentioned above.
(Caveat: This framework is geared toward those with ongoing work that mattered before the pandemic, matters now, and will continue mattering. But what if nothing you’re doing matters anymore? Any creeping nihilism aside, I want to leave open the possibility that your organization has drifted from a mission that matters, or perhaps never had one. If that’s the case, then much of the above doesn’t apply. It may be a moment for a more radical rethink, blowing up what you’re doing and starting anew. The new world will have many needs that aren’t met by legacy organizations from the old one, just as we saw a crop of new activist groups in the wake of the 2016 election. Now may be your moment.)
Future: 6+ months
The matrix above goes to six months—that takes you through September.
And beyond that? In Peak Uncertainty, even planning out six months is tough. I hesitate to say “don’t think about the future” but I fully embrace “don’t spend too much time thinking too far into the future” — at least until we know a bit more.
The exception to this guidance: if your organization has a major milestone event coming up in the months after September. Say, with an election in November. Then your planning timeline might need to extend a bit as you put multiple contingencies in place. But it still holds that you’ll have a lot more clarity on October and November if you wait a few weeks.
Where we go from here
Peak Uncertainty is a (relatively) brief period. That doesn’t mean we emerge from this uncertainty with the old normal, or even a new normal. In a few weeks, this moment of chaos will lead to an extended period when we’ll still be in the middle of a pandemic, but we’ll have greater clarity on what that means than we have now. Experts tell us the pandemic will then be with us for months, and may subside only to re-surface in the Fall or next year.
Life won’t feel normal again until schools and businesses re-open, maybe later this year or next. That will be a new normal, where the idea that this could happen again is seared in our minds—and, hopefully, into our policies and institutions, leaving them better prepared to respond next time.
We’ve never been in a moment like this before, and well, there’s a lot of uncertainty right now.