When developing your business response to change and uncertainty, recognize that your organizational and strategic response will differ depending on the scenario quadrants you’ve identified and should be responsive to the scenario you currently find yourself in.

Forget the “New Normal”
by Edward J. Ulman

he “new normal” is a tired and meaningless phrase. Do a Google search. I did, and Google returned this: “About 4,960,000,000 results (0.68 seconds).” That’s close to five billion—with a capital “B.” Let’s agree on this from the start: There is nothing new or normal in 2022 except for the unrelenting pace of change that challenges us every day.

Multiple Playing Fields

Despite the deep divisiveness in our country, we must recognize that we find ourselves at the crossroads of a pandemic, social unrest, global climate change, war in Eastern Europe, and increasing competition for the earth’s finite natural resources. In the midst of this, the question we should ask ourselves as leaders is: How might we avoid striking a deal with the devil and instead create humanizing outcomes guided by “the better angels of our nature?” In this case, the devil represents short-term, easy-results thinking, and the angel represents committing to long-term, sustainable outcomes that build over time.

As a non-profit performing arts executive, I first noticed a shift over two decades ago. Recognizing that change had punched into overdrive, successful leaders seemed to sense, respond, and adapt. They stopped long-range strategic planning and let go of forging a “preferred future.” Instead, leaders developed the growing awareness that past performance does not predict future outcomes, and scenario planning—stories developed through a systematic process to describe the diverse ways the future may unfold—took hold.

Challenging Horizons

On March 11, 2020, we all watched as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In response, the Alaska Public Media (AKPM) board of directors and executive management decided to hold the annual board retreat via videoconference and cancel our in-person social. When we logged on Saturday morning, March 11, it was clear after a relatively short discussion that management faced immediate operational challenges and decisions. Governance could not provide much assistance. The retreat was abruptly suspended.

The management team recognized there was much to research, review, and evaluate in order to ensure operational continuity over the next six months to a year. There were no best practices on which to rely. Little did we know, many of us would not see each other, beyond a Zoom video box, for almost two years.

After management put in place COVID mitigation and business continuity plans that ensured daily services while keeping staff, show hosts, and volunteers safe, board and management decided to spend the summer of 2020 scenario planning. We recognized the high stakes. If we only responded to the emergency of the moment, we could easily find that, after a year or so, the business growth we had worked so hard for these past four years would be lost.

Transparent, Flexible, Aligned Leadership

Leaders, at our very best, align people around ideas, causes, and goals. Alignment brings people together. Surviving the pandemic may seem an obvious goal. But leaders also inspire people to be aspirational. Survival alone does not an aspirational vision make. And if the goal is only to survive, it becomes far too easy to toss in the towel or wave the white flag.

We decided to recommit ourselves to advancing AKPM’s services and sustainability. Then, in support of this vision, we set an adaptive strategic goal: to promote and leverage the combined strengths of the board and management. We adopted a key output that required increasing board engagement through greater operational awareness by providing a deeper insider public media experience. In essence, AKPM became even more transparent. The result? An annual sustainable budget and operational planning process informed by the collaborative scenario planning in which we all engaged. But there was another, even more potent outcome we would later recognize.

Scenario-planning practices recommend that groups identify and compile a list of every driving force that could impact their organization and sector. Over multiple brainstorming sessions, we arrived at a document that was organized by four general categories:

  1. Community and Connections: the social context in which AKPM operates.
  2. Economy: global, national, state, and local issues.
  3. Media Landscape: the media system, technology, and trends in audience preferences and consumption.
  4. Short and long term implications of the pandemic.

Take another look at the list above. Do you see the commonalities? Instead of limiting ourselves to thinking about what was immediate to our local situation, we were positioning AKPM as an organization that must learn from and be aware of the global, national, and regional developments that cause disruptive change. A strategic plan or formal business plan that gets worked on once every four or five years is too restrictive, and runs the risk of being hyper-focused on what groups think they can control during the short period of time usually allowed for this type of planning.

Leaders, at our very best, align people around ideas, causes, and goals. Alignment brings people together.

Finally, we were ready to tackle the scenario-planning work itself. We determined that our vision to advance services and sustainability would drive the four general scenarios in which AKPM might find itself. We named these scenarios Northern Lights (growing audience, increasing capacity), Fireweed (increasing capacity, declining audiences), Potlatch (growing audiences, declining capacity), and Exit Glacier. Do I need to define that last scenario? We agreed: avoid Exit Glacier.

Driving Adaptive Change
In hindsight, we are now better prepared to manage risk, challenges, and opportunity. We are aligned around a shared vision and language. Together we are stronger, and together, with the tremendous support from the people we serve, we continue to advance and sustain the public media mission and vision for all Alaskans by sensing and responding through adaptive leadership practices.

What’s the lesson here? Businesses must constantly evolve and implement adaptive, flexible operational plans based on a strong set of strategic initiatives. Revisit, evaluate, and update these operational plans every fiscal year. This develops an executive management team that senses the winds of change. It also builds a healthy, respectful, and productive relationship between board and staff which we call “Strong Governance + Strong Executive Management = Strong Leadership.”

Empower all stakeholders to share what they see, hear, and learn. Make room for this sharing and engage with trusted, well-informed stakeholders often. When developing your business response to change and uncertainty, recognize that your organizational and strategic response will differ depending on the scenario quadrants you’ve identified and should be responsive to the scenario you currently find yourself in.

Develop and review your mission, vision, and values every couple of years and develop a list of strategic initiatives that all stakeholders revisit every two to three years.

This practice will have your enterprise tacking like a sailboat even as the winds of disruptive change swirl. Regular scenario planning teaches your people to quickly identify the general conditions of change. Successful leaders should abandon their trusty coal-fired steamships, which readily go from point A to point B, and return to sailboats—a metaphor pervasive in business speak for centuries.

In 1999, Steve Haeckel published his book, “Adaptive Enterprise: Creating and Leading Sense-and-Respond Organizations.” A copy was given to me by Ted Garcia, then general manager for KNME Public TV, shortly after I was hired to lead their education and outreach department in 2007. I had never heard of Haeckel. I didn’t have an MBA. But after reading a few sections of the book, I grasped the inherent value of the concepts. I realized I had been living this for the last ten years in the non-profit arts sector.

Because I know it can help you and your business, I share the following quote from Haeckel’s modest and unassuming website: “This site is for leaders struggling with the 21st Century issues of rapid and unpredictable change: How to empower people and innovate coherently; how to decide what to control and what to delegate; how to maintain authentic customer-centric operations; how to rapidly re-align organizational capabilities around today’s opportunities and today’s threats.” He continues, “Dealing effectively with these issues requires more than a new set of tools and ‘best practice’ prescriptions. It requires a fundamental and radical change in how managers think about strategy, structure, and governance. They need a leadership model specifically designed to cope with the adaptive challenge: sensing earlier and responding effectively to what is actually happening, rather than what was predicted to happen.”

That is why I urge you to forget this tired notion of accepting the “new normal.” Choose to sense and respond instead.

Visit Steve Haeckel’s website to explore the concept of adaptive enterprise, and to learn more about how AKPM serves Alaskans, please view the AKPM 2021 Annual Report to the Community and the 2021 Video Summary at https://www.alaskapublic.org/public-documents/.

Edward J. Ulman
Edward J. Ulman is the president and CEO of Alaska Public Media, Alaska’s largest PBS, NPR, and statewide news organization. Ulman joined AKPM in May 2016. Since his arrival, Ulman has revitalized local television production, expanded statewide enterprise journalism efforts, and redefined community engagement while increasing TV, radio, and online audiences. Ulman serves on the PBS Board of Directors and is a trustee for America’s Public Television Stations.

A jazz musician and a performing arts enthusiast, Ulman began his public broadcasting career in Arizona, later working in New Mexico and Washington State before moving to Alaska.