Planning in Turbulent Times

“…in turbulent times, the first task of management is to make sure of the institution’s capacity for survival, to make sure of its structural strength and soundness, of its capacity to survive a blow, to adapt to sudden change, and to avail itself of new opportunities.”

-Peter Drucker, Managing in Turbulent Times (1980)


As a global leader in management strategy for the last 60 years, Peter Drucker has had a greater influence on my approach to business and economic development planning than any other source. So, it was fitting that I borrow from his work for the title of this article.

These are indeed turbulent times. We are experiencing simultaneous crises in health, the economy, politics, climate change, and social justice—a combination few of us have experienced in our lifetimes. For some in our communities, survival is a daily challenge. And for others, recovery will be a long and difficult road.

But it’s important for those of us in leadership positions to pause and think beyond recovery.

As a firm, we have been fortunate to work in the strategic planning space for 25 years. We have helped communities and workers recover from many disruptions, including economic downturns, employer layoffs, natural disasters, military base closures, and industry realignments. Our work for small and large cities, states, and regional organizations has resulted in a deep portfolio of best practices, analytical tools, and an inclusive and effective planning process. We have learned a lot from our work, and many of these lessons are relevant in the current environment.

1. Embrace your leadership role.

In addition to the many crises mentioned above, we are facing a crisis in leadership. States currently look to the federal government only to be left to make their own decisions. And some cities find themselves at odds with their state capitols. This makes your role as a local leader more important than ever.

But it’s important to define your role. For some, serving as a convener may be of highest value. Economic recovery and resiliency are top of mind for every organization and stakeholder in your community. By leveraging your credibility and platform, you can bring together the right parties and facilitate the hard discussions that are needed.

For others, your leadership role may be in providing a decision-making framework, crafting a strategy, and guiding implementation. Perhaps it has been your organization that has led your community out of some of the crises in the past. If so, by tapping into the historic lessons, you can lead them out of this one as well. As leaders, it is important to share and learn from specific case studies of how good planning spurred businesses, organizations, and residents to recover from past catastrophes.

If internal resources are holding you back, look to outside funding sources to support your planning. CARES Act funds are currently available through a number of federal agencies, including the Economic Development Administration, Department of Labor, and United States Department of Agriculture, to name a few. There are also state and local agencies and many local, regional, and national foundations who are stepping up to assist local organizations in addressing recovery and resiliency.

2. Use data to drive your decision-making.

Stakeholders in your community are hungry for good information. In this time of so much misinformation, support them with solid, reliable data. However, providing good information requires rethinking how you use data.

Historical trend data has always had limitations, but it is especially problematic during the current crisis. Remember the jobs reports that raised a lot of questions earlier this year? Unemployment numbers that get reported monthly are frequently out of sync with employment reality. And they often leave out components like the informal economy (individuals receiving income not captured in our existing reporting), which skews the current conditions even more. These limitations make it important to use qualitative data to validate quantitative data. Call on your employers directly to get better jobs estimates. This data can validate or invalidate perceptions and reveal what is really going on, so you can make better informed decisions for you community.

Further, data analytics have made huge leaps in the last decade. Supplemental data, such as job posting trends and sales tax collections, can give you a more complete picture of an ever-evolving landscape. This creates an opportunity to refine data models like TIP’s Occupational Risk Tool, which helps communities plot pandemic-related earnings and health risks for given occupations. With this information, community leaders can more effectively strengthen the support for the most vulnerable jobs and workers.

3. Look for the signals in the noise.

The pandemic is rapidly changing the business landscape. While things may feel uncertain, there is actually a lot we know or can predict with some confidence.

For instance, supply chain structures once driven by cost and efficiency are moving to a greater focus on resiliency, influenced by trade policy, immigration restrictions, time to market, rising labor costs in developing nations, and vulnerabilities to climate, health , and geopolitics. As a result, we anticipate a strong re-shoring trend over the next 3 years that may result in bringing manufacturing suppliers back to the US.

The trend toward online retail sales versus bricks-and-mortar has been growing steadily for the past 2 decades, and we anticipate online sales to continue surging with pandemic-led movement restrictions. Some sectors benefiting directly and indirectly from online sales include data centers, logistics and distribution, and warehousing.

Some percentage of remote work is here to stay, and remote workers are seeking the right home base. This may mean new opportunities for communities with high quality of life and access to broadband.

Other trends are also speeding up and providing economic opportunities—movement toward cashless transactions is driving increased demand for cybersecurity services. Greater reliance on telehealth is accelerating the growth of new sensor technologies to monitor health at home. And with limited options for traditional travel, many Americans have turned to outdoor recreation, leading to increased demand for cycling and camping equipment.

This moment warrants aggressive action to create a future-ready economy. Understanding which trends will accelerate and which will slow offers an immediate and practical response to broader uncertainty.

4. Communication matters. 

Turbulent times require more communication, not less. And while in-person planning is preferable, we will likely have to rely on virtual conversations in the near term. However, if facilitated well, virtual meetings (using platforms like Zoom, MS Teams, GoToMeeting, or Google Meet) can allow new voices to be heard, more open and honest questions to be asked, and conversations to be shared and recorded to facilitate follow through. Another remarkable upside to today’s virtual sessions is the ability to bring in experts from around the country (and the world) who otherwise may not be able to join your meeting.

Make the virtual environment engaging by utilizing live polling tools like Mentimeter to encourage participation. Be mindful of inclusivity; not everyone feels comfortable speaking up in virtual meetings. Learn to monitor the “chat” function for receiving input. Expect to learn as you go and note what worked and what fell short to make the next one better.

Use this opportunity to bring new and different voices to the table. Collaborate with non-traditional partners, like the social service and healthcare sectors, community and corporate foundations, or even parks organizations. Look outside your immediate borders and think regionally.

5. Equity and inclusion ensure a more resilient future.

Traditional approaches to economic development have not benefited all populations. Many in our communities have been left out of the discussion, left out of the decision-making, and more importantly, left out of the outcomes. This crisis has had a disproportionate impact on low income populations and communities of color, many of whom are on the frontline, keeping parts of our economies running while also being exposed to greater risks. Our economic recovery and the future of our communities depend on the success of workers who have been systematically left behind.

A community focused on equity and broad-based opportunity will be more resilient in the face of future challenges.

The first step is to come to a consensus about what we mean by equity and inclusion. Here at TIP we define equity as providing fair access to resources and opportunity while eliminating systemic barriers that prevent full economic participation. For us, inclusion means creating an economy in which every individual and group is valued and able to fully contribute to your community’s economic vitality.

Other things to consider are disaggregating data, bringing new partners to the table (such as nonprofits and social services), making diversity and inclusion a specific goal in hiring, talking directly to affected populations, expanding broadband access, and modifying incentives to spur more inclusive development.

TIP’s team members, Jaclyn Le, Jennifer Todd-Goynes, and Tracye McDaniel dive deeper into these topics in a recent series of Develop This! podcasts, where they provide detailed recommendations for how to make equity and inclusion a part of your planning efforts. I encourage you to take a few minutes and listen to “How Equity and Inclusion Boost Economic Recovery” parts one and two.

Moving Forward

It is critical for those of us in leadership positions to set aside time and energy to plan for what’s next. To heed Drucker’s advice and ensure our community can “adapt to sudden change, and to avail itself of new opportunities.” Our actions over the next year can help our community emerge from this situation better, stronger, and less vulnerable.

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