Strategic Planning in a Pandemic

You know the old adage: Man plans, God laughs. No year in recent history has served as better evidence of this statement than 2020. The fact that calling Bingo on the 2020 Board requires “murder hornets,” “West Nile,” and “a short Kanye West presidential run” means the thing you least expect is exactly what is most likely to happen this year. But plans still need to be made, and budgets need to be approved. So, how do marketers set smart, strategic plans for the future — when the exact future is unknown?

The first thing to recognize is that the healthcare industry has been in upheaval since before COVID-19. Even in “normal” times when we thought the world made sense, there’s been uncertainty about how healthcare providers would get paid, what legislation would either enable or restrict care, and how the industry would respond. The systems and structures of healthcare have long stood on a precipice, ready to be upended in an instant. You’ve likely needed to account for unknowns in every year’s planning process. So take comfort in the fact that as crazy as things feel right now, you have been planning despite these unknowns for some time.

That said, we know the burdens of uncertainty in 2020 are heavier than ever. Luckily, we help our clients across the healthcare industry plan their marketing programs through good, bad, and ugly. Every healthcare organization is different, and each one faces different challenges. But across the board, there are four principles to keep in mind when planning for the next year of the No Normal.


1. Let your brand be your foundation.

Research has shown that companies with strong brands recover better from recessions. A strong brand can thrive in any environment because it represents a truth — about you, your customer, and your community — that is greater than circumstances.

In the heat of the COVID-19 crisis, many healthcare companies have forgotten that when managed well, their brand can be the tide that carries their organization through rough storms. If you’ve pivoted your messaging approach due to COVID-19 and haven’t given your brand love lately, consider that now may actually be the moment where the consistency and reliability of your brand is more important and relevant than ever to your audiences. And, if your brand needed attention before the pandemic and this crisis exposed its vulnerabilities, now is the opportune time to re-evaluate and relaunch.


2. Place an emphasis on diversity.

The business case for diversity in the workplace is strong. But beyond that, the upheavals and awakenings in 2020 have exposed the need for organizations to kick off or expand long-overdue efforts to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) — and to communicate clearly about the changes they are making.

This year, many organizations have been inspired to establish a DEI committee, develop an organizational DEI vision and goals, revise their values, review hiring practices, and identify needed changes for a better and more inclusive future. These are important steps. Equally important is the communication of these changes to internal and external audiences, and actively listening in return. Creating a dialogue with employees and the community is key for continued learning and growth — which is the real path to change.

Take it from my colleague Lindsey Thompson: “Staying paralyzed or sticking our head in the sand is not the safe choice. It comes with reputational risk and high societal stakes.” The same goes for staying silent. Speaking out about how your organization is evolving is critical to reducing those risks. The best way to be a positive force for change is to listen, communicate, and take action.


3. Make a bet on your best guesses, with contingencies.

At some point in planning, you’ll have to make a bet. You won’t have all the information. Five minutes after you make the call, you’ll learn new information that throws it all in a tailspin. But you need to make that call, and stick to it — so you can get to the starting line. This is a little different from the “fail fast” culture — it’s more about getting moving. Yes, there may be miscalculations along the way, forks in the road, and unforeseen twists. But you have to start somewhere!

There’s so much we don’t know about what this year will bring, but we do know that when it comes to novel coronavirus cases, until a vaccine is widely available, three possibilities exist: Surges, troughs, and plateaus. Start there. Planning for those options can help you be as prepared as possible. Place your best bets, and then layer in some contingencies for these “known unknowns” so you can be as prepared as possible.

4. Be flexible and open to change.

You can’t know everything that will happen, but you can build processes that will give you grace when plans go kaput and allow you to shift course when things change. Reconstruct your approach to planning and expect those kinds of twists and turns. Consider moving to dynamic financial planning so that you are able to provide an annual ballpark, but authorize expenditures on a quarterly basis. Manage expectations within your enterprise. And, work through multiple scenarios that can add up to a similar ballpark budget for your year. You can’t know everything yet, so the best plan is one that plans for change.


For more on this, check out our blog: The Five Principles of the No Normal.


September 2, 2020
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