The one question you must answer when post-pandemic planning

Like most other people I know my diet has changed since the lock-down began. There’s a definite emphasis on “comfort food” – perhaps more carb-heavy than normal, an increased choice of desserts and a definite nod towards the foods enjoyed in childhood (rice pudding hasn’t featured yet but it’s on the to-cook list).

The collective psychology of this is interesting: in a time of stress we gravitate towards certainty and things that make us feel better, even if they don’t necessarily make healthier in the long term.

I’m tolerating my consumption of comfort food for as long as I can counterbalance it with an attempt at regular exercise (no Joe Wicks for me but a combination of 5k runs and a living room gym just about works) but I’m more concerned about the lure of what I call mental comfort food when planning a future beyond the current pandemic.

Mental comfort food

On a personal and organisational level, we’ve all seen and experienced rapid adaptation to accommodate the impact of physical distancing and social isolation. Remote working, videoconferencing and “Zoom drinks” have all become commonplace and look set to play a major part of our work and social lives even after the pandemic has abated.

It takes longer to adapt our thought processes though and there’s a tendency to fall back old paradigms to address new challenges: mental comfort food.

Unfortunately, this won’t do because, irrespective of which industry you work in, the assumptions on which you based your current business model have irreversibly changed.

It’s time for a re-think and, for me, the most important question you can ask is not things like “how many customers will we be able to serve given the requirements for physical distancing?” or even “how can we move our business online?” – important though those are you need to be asking something more fundamental:

“What business are we really in?”

At first sight this may be a daft question since whether you’re a theatre director, a hairdresser or a banker, I’m assuming you’re aware of the industry sector you work in and therefore what type of business you run.

However, when you scratch the surface, that definition isn’t very helpful in deciding what kind of customers you want to attract and retain: it’s much more useful to ask why those customers choose to do business with you rather than a competitor.


Continuing the comfort theme, let’s take a look at one of the new breed of online mattress sellers. A while back I was in the market for a new mattress and became interested in Simba. I chose this company because I was the near victim of an attempted scam involving delivery of a couple of mattresses I hadn’t ordered: they helped me sort it out and I suffered no loss. Curious, I investigated their range and discovered that their proposition didn’t just include comfy mattresses but ancillary products such as bed linen (fairly obvious I guess) and pillow sprays to help you sleep (slightly less obvious). More unexpectedly they offered – last year at any rate – an opportunity to sleep over in one of a number of rooms equipped and furnished with their products – a real lifestyle pitch that has now been killed off by coronavirus.

Simba’s real business is not mattress-selling – although that activity forms a large part of what they do – but could be in the business of creating a restful night-time environment or, given that they started in thread making for mattresses then diversified they could be in the business of adapting and shape-shifting according to the needs of the market.

Adapt or die?

I mentioned previously that my wife runs ante-natal classes for the NCT and has rapidly adapted to teaching via Zoom. The NCT is an interesting case – most people join classes to find out more about birth and subsequent childcare but there’s a social element that is also important: classes become a support group and very often enable relationships to be built that last a lifetime. Pre-pandemic, classes met together in a venue and groups would often move on afterwards to a pub or other venue to socialise. Classes via Zoom and a WhatsApp group can’t exactly mimic this, but as people get used to socialising and receiving information via remote means, it becomes much more acceptable.

The important thing is that NCT are in the business of creating social support structures as much as educating about childcare. Creative use of the technology allows this to be sustained during the pandemic and may – who knows? – form part of the future way of working.

Beyond the doom and gloom

But let’s say you’re a local arts centre with a small auditorium and a programme of theatre or other performances that you’ve had to put on hold while you furlough staff and find ways of keeping the centre going when you have no one coming to the theatre. At first sight, long term imposition of social distancing measures might threaten the basis of your business, but there are signs that creative thinking can pay off. For example, in April a site-specific immersive production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest successfully moved to an online, immersive production via Zoom. (The review I read was so enthusiastic that, by the time I decided to book, all the seats had been sold for the remaining performances.)

Creation Theatre’s business is theatre productions – obviously! – but as far as I can see it’s mainly in the business of creating site-specific magic and, when the physical site can no longer be accessed, the magic can transfer to a conferencing platform with a few adjustments.

In a local arts centre it’s unlikely you would be able to transfer all your productions in the same way but it might be that, although performance is what you do, a significant part of the business you are in may be more to do with creating a community than with particular performances and therefore, temporarily until performances resume, your focus may have to be on building and maintaining that sense of community, achieving some of your purpose without doing what might have been the core of your business. Virtual operation might enable your community to be extended beyond its local geographical boundaries.

Coronavirus and the constraints it places on organisations force a review of what’s possible – and to make the most of this, organisations need to understand what they are really about and then match the possibilities to the way forward. This thinking is fundamental to my KnittingFog strategy and planning workshops – and if you’re in the arts or non-profit sector then these are currently being made available free of charge. If you’re interested, please get in touch.

Business planning, composition and jazz

It’s possible to get hung up on detail and precision when writing a business plan, a bit like writing a piece of classical music. In fact, business planning is more like writing music for jazz musicians: less detail and space to improvise.

Does your organisation “do boring?”

The exciting mission and purpose need to be balanced against the dull stuff – and good planning is essential

Are you excited by your working life? Does every problem seem like a solution waiting to happen? Do you spend most of the day in a state of feverish anticipation about the next curveball that the world is going to sling at you?

If the answer is “no, not often” then you have much in common with 99.9% of people in organisations around the world: however much your organisation has a great cause, a compelling purpose, whizzy products and funky offices with great coffee on tap and a pinball machine in the basement, you have to spend a large chunk of your day doing stuff that’s – when all’s said and done – pretty boring.

In a large business the stuff that we might find a bit dull can be allocated to people who don’t find it so: that’s why we have Finance, HR, Procurement and so on. If you’re lucky, those departments will be full of people who can eat a purchase ledger for breakfast without batting an eyelid and will be happy to do so day in, day out.

But a lot of us don’t work in large businesses. I’m increasingly working with smaller organisations in the arts and non-profit sectors and I find that two conflicting factors are at play:

1) The core of what these organisations do is very exciting

Running an arts centre, delivering services to people in need, finding a cure for cancer or helping young people develop – whatever non-profit organisations do they are almost always inspired by a greater sense of purpose than most for-profit organisations. People join them because of that purpose and permeates the whole organisation meaning people turn up to work every day fired up to deliver it. But the counterpoint to this is that…

2) The “boring stuff” can get left behind

There’s a whole bunch of things that are necessary to run even the most purpose-driven non-profit, for example

  • Accounts have to be kept in order to ensure financial viability
  • Policies and procedures have to be in place to do all kinds of things including financial viability, enabling diversity, protecting vulnerable children and adults
  • People have to be hired, developed, rewarded and let go with fairness and due process
  • and so on and so on…

The list, whilst not endless, is typically longer and more apparently complex than the list of things that inform an organisation’s purpose, so it carries the additional burden of appearing to outweigh the stuff that the organisation exists to do.

Larger non-profits get around this by having separate departments that do this – just like larger commercial organisations. Smaller non-profits often don’t have the scale to be able to this and, as they will have grown from tiny start-up organisations comprising a handful of founders, they will have been used to minimising the routine background tasks but doing it themselves.

Once the organisation grows, this isn’t sustainable: there just aren’t enough hours in the day to keep on top of the admin tasks and founders can have difficulty delivering the admin correctly as well as the mission.

The kids weren’t alright

If left unchecked this kind of thing can have serious consequences. The demise of the children’s support charity Kids’ Company in 1995 had a number of contributing factors but the major issue seems to have been an imbalance between the drive to fulfil its mission of supporting vulnerable children and ensuring the proper processes and safeguards were in place to support the growth the charity was going through. In this case, these did not appear to have the

The boring board

Trustees have a critical role to play in ensuring that the boring stuff gets attended to – they’re there to ensure the viability of the organisation so, whilst it’s vital that trustees share the mission and values of the organisation it helps if they can bring specialist expertise such as a background in finance, HR or other business support areas, as well as other useful attributes like an address book full of potential donors (well, I guess we can dream…).

Whilst the founders have the vision for the exciting stuff that the organisation will do, the “boring board” ensures that this drive doesn’t happen without compromising the stability and reputation of the organisation.

Planning for success, commercially

Having a sound business plan is where all this comes together and, as you may have realised, the disciplines that are successfully applied in commercial organisations – finance, HR, risk and so on – are just as important in non-profit organisations. (In fact, the term non-profit is slightly misleading: all organisations need to have a positive balance sheet, whether they have paying customers or non-paying “service users” – often they will have a mix of the two.)

The business plan sets out how the organisation will grow and develop over a timeframe typically between 12 and 36 months and aligns its development goals with the financial and organisational changes that support them.

The tools you need to develop this plan whether for or not for profit are the same and I have condensed my quarter-century of experience in this area into a simple one-page guide that helps you deliver a sound plan that will put your organisation on a sound footing – keeping its vision and purpose alive whilst putting in the structures and processes that will keep it growing.

Growth – that’s what makes the boring stuff really quite exciting.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Why business planning is like jazz

We tend to think of plans as precise specifications like compositions, but writing for jazz musicians is a better analogy

I specialise in creating robust, implementable strategies and plans for organisations going through times of change. Somewhere along the line a plan gets delivered, whether it’s me writing it or my clients, but I think there’s a bit of a misconception about the role of plans and to me it’s best explained with an analogy.

We have a tendency to think of a plan as a precise specification of what will happen, a bit like a musical composition. In western classical music – at least for last 400 years or so – it’s been written down precisely so that the musicians play exactly what the composer intended.

Bach to the future

Take a piece of Bach: if I were to play it as written it would sound pretty good – the arrangement of the notes, the harmony and the counterpoint are all designed to sound great if played exactly as written. I could even program it into my laptop and it would sound OK – in fact I’d have to as my piano playing is even more rudimentary than my guitar playing.

But business planning is not like classical music, it’s more like jazz…

Now I know at the mere mention of jazz, you might be about to switch off: it’s a music that seems to divide opinion. But whether you think it’s a self-indulgent exercise that mostly appeals to chin-stroking men sporting berets and goatee beards in dingy basements or – like me – you think it’s the sublime art form of the 20th and 21st centuries stay with me for a moment because there’s a point to be made whether your preference is for pop, bebop, hard rock, classical or total silence.

In jazz composition, the music is not always precisely written down – in fact for most smaller groups it may not be written down at all. To write a jazz composition – and I know this because in my time I have written a few (see here for the one surviving recording) – you need a melody and some indication of the harmony and the rhythmic feel. That’s enough data for the musicians to be able to play the tune and then improvise on it.

Every performance will be different, responding to the mood, and what each musician contributes as the piece evolves.

Berets not required

To have effective business plans you don’t need to don a beret, grow a goatee or learn to play very fast scales on the saxophone, you simply need to keep the detail high enough so that you don’t waste time over-specifying things when you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Just like jazz compositions have a few basic elements, business plans are similar – the key parts are:

  • What market are we in? (style)
  • What do we want to do by when (melody and harmony)?
  • What resources do we have? (instrumentation)

Within these three categories there are, of course, a great many questions that you can ask, and will answer during the planning process, putting the answers into some form of documented plan. But the detail doesn’t specify precisely what should happen and when: it just gives enough detail to show the trajectory of the business over time allowing some space for improvisation (a.k.a. agile business decision-making) as circumstances change.

I’ve produced my own simple “composition” guide for business planning: it doesn’t make any references to jazz, but it’s reduced to a page. Feel free to download it to help shape your own organisation’s future plans.