Sightlines Under Stress

Strategizing in a time of uncertainty is difficult, partly because we often think planning requires some measure of ability to predict what will happen in the future, and right now our crystal ball is very much broken.

I would suggest that while staying aligned with an unpredictable context makes strategic planning challenging, the process is less about clairvoyance and more about conviction.

And here’s where things get tricky right now.

Amost all of us are more stressed than usual. And stressed people tend not to make the best decisions. (There is lots of literature on this — I’ve footnoted a few examples below).  We tend to see things in more binary terms, and we weigh risks and benefits differently than we otherwise might.

Even more than that, our usual “turn taking” in processing stressful life events together has been replaced by “we’re all in this together.” It used to be that if you were experiencing trauma, often your best friend or coworkers weren’t going through the same thing at the very same time. This new reality is great for empathy but not great for perspective. So it’s not just “Can we PLAN at at time like this?” but “Can WE plan at at a time like this?”

So where does this leave us? Unless your previous plan incorporated the possibility of life in a pandemic, I suspect it needs a refresh. We not only can plan at a time like this, but we must. But given our current individual and collective fatigue and stress, I would suggest making four key modifications to your planning process at this time:

  1. Plan the details in shorter increments. This is not the time for a five-year detailed logic model. Map out your three-year sightline, then keep the details to a quarter or a year, with a more frequent cadence of review.
  2. Keep the stakes low when you can. Given the unpredictability of the context, minimize risk where possible by breaking strategic decisions into smaller experiments.
  3. Invite multiple perspectives to inform decisions. Diverse perspectives are protective at the best of times and even more so now. When we’re not functioning on all cylinders individually, we need to rely on the wisdom of others, even if they aren’t at their best either. We’re better together.
  4. Prune the process down to the most essential decisions that need to be made at this time. Our cognitive load is heavy right now. Avoid asking people to use up that scarce space with unnecessary decisions and save their brilliance for those decisions where you most need it.
  5. Name it. Candour helps. Call out the fact that planning is challenging right now and appeal for your team’s help to bring their A-game to the task.

Most of us have been managing acute levels of stress over a chronic length of time. We need plenty of compassion, for ourselves and others. We also need practical tweaks to our processes to keep moving forward with the best of what we’ve got.

It’s book launch week!  My new book Sightline: Strategic plans that gather momentum not dust will be available on Tuesday October 20. (It’s on sale for just $3.99 on Kindle on that day.)  I hope you’ll buy copies for your leadership teams and Boards, then leave a review on Amazon. I’d also love for you to join me at a launch event to celebrate Facilitation Week on Thursday, October 22 from 8-9 a.m. ET. There will be some fun giveaways, I’ll tell you about the book and the writing process, and we can reconnect live if not in-person.


Stress Changes How People Make Decisions, Association for Psychological Science (February 27, 2012)

Stress Leads to Bad Decisions. Here’s How to Avoid Them, Ron Carucci, Harvard Business Review (August 29, 2017)

“Decision making under stress: the role of information overload, time pressure, complexity, and uncertainty,” Gloria Phillips-Wren & Monica Adya, Journal of Decision Systems, May 2020

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