What we used to think of as ‘contingency planning’ is now just planning, says Patrick Towell. That is what it means to be ‘dynamic’.
In recent years, anyone leading, changing or governing organisations, has learned – sometimes the hard way - that volatility and uncertainty are not reasons NOT to have a plan. In the wake of our collective traumas, boards, funders and stakeholders want to see how we plan to mitigate risk.
That probably means not one plan but several, all underpinned by projections, clearly articulated assumptions, potential scenarios and triggers – external events or internal issues – that will alert us to the need to change course. We also need to able to turn our strategy on a sixpence – or ‘pivot’ to use the term adopted from the world of tech and ventures.
The prerogative to change your mind
Pivoting sounds so much more strategic than ‘we’ve realised that what we’re doing isn’t working’. But being ready to change your mind is crucial when based on solid evidence from market or user research, testing different choices, refining the front runners.
These are common behaviours to any start-up and are not unfamiliar to creative leaders. After all, the leadership of creative projects is full of contingent factors, innately agile and subject to pragmatic changes of heart. It helps to have stakeholders and funders who understand the experimental nature of our propositions.
The past is not a blueprint
If we’ve learnt anything over the last two years, it’s that we can’t assume that the next two will look anything like them, or even the ‘old normal’. We need to imagine the different futures we will be working in.
Although there may be things we mourn, we need to focus our energies on opportunities to review our assets and their potential value in an altered world. As What is resilience anyway? highlighted pre-pandemic, financial and organisational resilience is as much about bouncing forwards to a new normal as it is bouncing back to a familiar, if imperfect, status quo ante.
What is dynamism, anyway?
What is resilience anyway? focused on resilience as an outcome and the behaviours resilient organisations adopt. Dynamism, then, as expressed by ACE in their investment principles, is an umbrella term for those behaviours:
The principle of Dynamism is about responding to the challenges of the next decade. It means having a business model that is flexible and able to adapt to changing environments. It is about understanding the value you create for the communities you serve, whilst considering the needs of those you are yet to reach.
A city that can weather storms will be resilient because of its citizens and organisations behaving dynamically. They will spot the storm brewing and prepare for it: planning for different scenarios; changing their response based on rapidly changing evidence; taking action knowing that all courses of action are risky, and that some will fail; and working together to meet challenges.
As with a city, resilience and dynamic behaviours are functions of people and organisations working together as ecosystems.
Overcoming old-school obstacles
Thinking dynamically doesn’t necessarily come naturally to boards and funders. A rather corporatist view of strategy still prevails, not least because much company, and particularly charity law, requires it. Many of us have witnessed gung-ho businesspeople who suddenly turn conservative and risk averse on becoming a trustee of a cultural organisation, with the attendant regulation and responsibility.
This is exacerbated by public sector stakeholders and funders, who tend to be process-heavy because of their size and status. So, ACE's new language around agility and dynamism is welcome, especially when they model such behaviours in the funder relationship.
Similarly, the shift of trusts and foundations towards an accountability framework based more on outcomes and learning is a positive one and should also serve to influence governance style.
I enjoyed the dissection of why much business planning doesn’t work in The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. The many pitfalls it highlights include:
- Formally planning activities while not considering the future – business plans which are based entirely on ‘what we did in the last period’ without considering any external political, economic, technological, social or competitive factors.
- Considering the future without formally planning – where the analysis is spot on and the desired future state of the organisation is stated crisply, with absolutely no detail in terms of process, responsibility or resources on how to get there.
Often the problem is that the application requires one strategy and one plan, whereas reality requires several. This gives rise to what I call the ‘false certainty’ of planning, where you believe your own plan, even though your organisational performance is telling you something different.
Stakeholders often demand, even reward, such confidence despite their awareness of uncertainty. This can put pressure on leaders to provide the appearance of certainty, knowing they will need to navigate choppier waters than the plan’s narrative suggests. Again, a more supportive and generative style of governance and public accountability would promote more ‘confidently dynamic’ rather than ‘falsely certain’ organisations.
Another stress arises from a misplaced assumption about the formality of strategy development and business planning. The exhortation to business innovation in ACE’s dynamism investment principle is to be creative with business models - as creative as we are with a performance piece or a curated experience. That can involve ‘magpieing’ ideas from a wide range of people – and other industries and sectors.
Just as we’re used to playful bricolage in the conception, design and realisation of creative works, so can we be in developing models and propositions – and monetising them to pay our staff, freelancers and supply chain properly, and to invest in future projects or ventures.
This is the creativity of the entrepreneur, not the artist or creative. But it is a core ingredient of innovation in small to medium enterprises, as recently discussed on these pages.
With sufficiently primed antennae, we can track what’s changing – alternatives to what we do now, the audiences we don’t reach, new potential business models. Being outward looking also enables us to respond to unexpected opportunities with disruptive innovations that are step change away from our current business model.
We’ve touched on digital as a kind of technology we need to consider. ACE has decided that technology lives in the dynamism investment principle because they associate it with innovation, as well as it being a fast-moving external factor that has to be responded to dynamically.
It’s dangerous to fetishize technology – tech for tech’s sake. I find the Digital Culture Compass useful in thinking about digital in terms of its use, rather than types of tech or particular systems. You could organise digital planning around the ACE investment principles and, in each case, assess whether technology is supporting existing models or stimulating new ones.
Creative stuff – ‘ambition and quality’
- Enables and supports existing creative experiences/content
- Stimulates new creative experiences/content
People and communities – ‘inclusivity and relevance’
- Enables and supports existing engagement and participation
- Stimulating new engagement and participation
Adapting to changing circumstances – ‘dynamism’
- Enables and supports existing business models
- Stimulates new business models
Barriers to Innovation
Why innovation doesn’t happen is very simple – resources are not allocated to it. If it’s to happen, we need resources available even though we don’t know exactly which ones and how many, as it’s part of our emergent strategy. This can be difficult to justify when you are cash strapped.
And innovation can appear risky because we underestimate the risk of doing nothing. In turbulent times, staying still and doing the same thing is often the riskiest option, especially when your business model will not be sustainable in the medium term.
Data with a purpose
What is resilience anyway? identified using data and other evidence to drive decision making as a key behaviour of a resilient organisation.
Data can be turned into meaningful information to support your decision-making and innovation. It can optimise your existing business model:
- optimising pricing dynamically, differentiated pricing for different customer groups
- as better evidence to support funding, sponsorship or individual giving
- as an asset to engage and target existing or more easily reached audiences.
Or it can provide the stimulus to change your business model – devise new products, services, content or experiences – or to launch a new venture:
- intelligence about changing consumer behaviour
- research about audiences you don’t reach
- noticing areas where your organisation’s knowledge is lacking, causing you to be unaware of risks or miss opportunities.
I feel more dynamic already
So, in embedding dynamism in your strategies and plans, we suggest you start by:
- Imagining different futures, then planning for them.
- Thinking how you will adopt specific dynamic behaviours.
- Planning for change – and being ready to change the plan.
- Organising digital in terms of what it’s for – not what the tech is.
- Having some data supporting your existing model – some driving innovation.
Patrick Towell is Innovation Director at The Audience Agency.
This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.