Can You Duck And Roll To Survive The Covid-19 Onslaught?

Capitis Consulting - Paul Varian MBA, C.Dir picture
Paul Varian MBA, C.Dir
Capitis Consulting | Article - Can You Duck and Roll To Survive The Covid-19 Onslaught

Amateur sport organizations are realizing that those who can adapt and manoeuvre quickly are managing best in a Covid-19 sports world.

Charles Darwin. You’ve heard of him right? His Theory of Natural Selection has formed the basis of much of modern biological thinking, and continues to. Central to Darwin’s thinking is the concept that adaptability wins in nature. He asserts that species evolve through a process of natural selection – those that are best adapted to their environment survive, the others perish. The fittest and strongest gazelles out-run the lion, while the weaker ones are lunch. The stronger, faster ones that survive bear offspring that are naturally faster and stronger as well. The species evolves to be fast and strong, adapting to out-run fierce big cats and the like.

This foundational concept of modern biology is true for life, including business and organizational success. Organizations that adapt to change beat their competitors to market with enhanced value-add and flourish. Those who resist change struggle and ultimately lose.

The sport system is not exempt from this principle either. Substitute those gazelles for amateur sports clubs and Darwin’s ideas still hold true, and especially right now. Indeed, the importance of adaptability and embracing change has rarely been so ruthlessly exposed as it has this year with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated global public health crisis.

The rules of the game have dramatically changed. Suddenly, success in sports organizations has gone from athletic success (be it podium, participation or developmental) to one of basic organizational survival. Look beyond your athletes’ success for now. Can you as a sports club make it to see 2021? That’s the real question for 2020.

Think back to when this all hit in March 2020. We started by gnashing our teeth at how financially exposed many sports organizations had allowed themselves to become; how little capital protection they had built on their balance sheets to lean on in times like these. Fast forward to now, August 2020. Thanks in part to some welcome and sensible fiscal relief policy from governments, but also after some painful belt-tightening and organizational contraction, most sport clubs are thinking ‘What now? How do I survive and ultimately thrive in 2021 and beyond?’

I think back to my advice to sports clubs back in March 2020. ‘Batten down the hatches,’ I said. ‘Make your cost footprint as small as possible. Be ready to bring your operations back quickly when we return. Because when we re-open, it’ll be big with high demand.’

I naively assumed the return to play would simple – linear, almost binary. Like a light switch. We weren’t playing yesterday. Bing! We are back playing today! Go crazy everyone! But of course, that isn’t how it has played out.

The return to ‘normality’ simply hasn’t happened. Re-starts have been multi-phased and complex, involving confusing multiple layers of decision-making from governments, governing bodies and sports clubs combined. There have been different re-opening plans for different sports and different jurisdictions. All of this under the shadow of the risk of new infection outbreaks and relapses, plunging us back into lockdown again.

Linear and straight-forward, it has not been.

It means sports organizations have been excruciatingly difficult to manage over the past five months. This was initially due to early crisis management of the pandemic. But the bigger (and more complex) issue now centres on planning of sport operations and confidentially deploying the capital needed to run them in such an uncertain world.

I surveyed the leadership of 24 of Canada’s larger amateur soccer clubs. Over half of them said that uncertainty surrounding re-opening is the biggest challenge they are facing right now. When asked what their greatest fear is moving forward, a second wave of Covid-19 infections rates highest, scoring 90% on the ‘fear index’.

So how do sports clubs realistically manage themselves in these times of extraordinary uncertainty?

Those of you who are familiar with me will know that I am a big planning advocate. Without good planning, you can’t consolidate your sports organization’s stakeholder value, keep the Boardroom thinking long-term, or objectively hold your executive leadership to account. But surely the idea of planning must be thrown out of the window in these unstable times, right?

Well, no. I argue planning shouldn’t be thrown out the window at all. Indeed, its never been more important. It just needs to look different.

Any baseball or softball coaches out there? What is one of the things you do if a batter is struggling for confidence or facing particularly tough pitching? You shorten their batting swing, right? Why? Well, to cut error rate, simplify their action, and focus on the basic success parameter of getting bat-on-ball. You can progress from there to ultimately hitting home runs. But you start by stripping it all down to the basics of simple hitting. (The same with your golf swing when you’ve got an attack of the shanks, right?)

In these times, when the sports system is facing Cy Young pitching of the highest order and confidence in our swing is shaky, our planning must too strip down. We don’t dump it, claiming its irrelevant or impossible. We just shorten and simplify it.

As sports clubs, you need to change your planning cycles to build in adaptability and flexibility that will allow you to battle through. Our world remains Darwinian. To survive, you must adapt quickly. How well you can roll with the punches will dictate how effectively you manage through this. You must be nimble as a sports club in everything you do, including your planning.

It seems some Canadian sports clubs already get this. When we asked our 24 soccer club leaders to rank ten organizational attributes in terms of importance to their club right now, ‘organizational nimbleness’ coasted in first (rated at 80.6% in terms of importance).

These sport club leaders know organizational pliability is important in these crazy times. But recognizing its importance and actually building it into your sports club are two very different things. How do you move your sports club to be agile, flexible and able to change quickly to meet the next curve ball you’re thrown?

Here are a few things you can start with, to help you on your way.

1. Make your strategic plan vision-driven and KPI-free

I have always been a firm believer in committing to hard, measurable Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) when developing a strategic plan. But, while accountability in a strategic plan is still highly important, the idea of being able to commit to a firm multi-year goal about anything is fantasy at the moment. In a world where many sports clubs don’t know if they’ll be in business by the New Year or not, claiming they are going to increase their athlete enrolment by 20% by 2025 seems irrelevant, and frankly somewhat out-of-touch.

So ditch the long-range hard targets for now. No, I’m not saying you should throw your strategic plan out with it. Far from it. Just turn it into more of a guiding-light document, showing strategic direction rather than hard targets. You can still have the strategic goal of enrollment expansion. Just park the target of 20% for now. Maintain your strategic plan as your guiding beacon, particularly as you start to rebuild your programs and operations.

2. Move to quarterly or monthly operational planning cycles

Here’s where you shorten your swing. Removing longer-term KPIs from your strategic plan doesn’t mean you aren’t setting targets and measuring performance. You're just tightening it up into much shorter time periods. Operational plans (that implement strategic plans) are commonly annual in length, matching the annual operating budget that finances them. But in 2020, twelve months feels like twelve years. You just can’t commit to that length of operational investment. Better to bring it in to a series of shorter planning cycles – quarterly or even monthly. (More than one sports club has told me they are literally planning and working week-to-week right now).

Many sports clubs in Canada are already doing this. All 24 of the soccer clubs we surveyed said they have changed their approach to planning to incorporate greater flexibility and a shortening of planning commitment (that helps mitigate risk).

It will mean, as a sports executive, you’ll be spending seemingly endless hours planning, budgeting and reviewing with your Board of Directors. But you have got to do it. It may feel like overkill and that you are ignoring other parts of your job, or organization. But its simply where you need to be right now. Many other parts of your organization are probably shut down right now anyway. So devote yourself to repeated, short term operational planning. Although it may feel boring and relentless at times, it’s a firm but flexible hand on the steering wheel that your sports club desperately needs right now.

3. Establish a flexible staff and volunteer workforce

Many sports organizations have had to go through the gut-wrenching job of shedding most of their staff, many of whom are loyal workers and friends and have been involved with the organization for many years. It has beaten down many sport leaders, but the stripped-down sport workforce that has been created does paradoxically hand you some opportunity.

In its lessened state, your staff system is primed to be re-engineered to build the skills and flexibility you need to operate in a post-Covid sports system.

Take the opportunity to rethink staff positions, target new business skills (such as proper digital marketing skills) and move positions to flexible contract positions, working from home or remote locations. Remember, its very much an employers’ job market right now, so there is likely an abundance of talent out there waiting to work for you. Be ready to acquire what your post-Covid sports organization needs into the future, not what you have traditionally hired in the past. Great people will be waiting when you are ready to go to market.

Do the same with your volunteer base. What volunteer help do you really need in this new modern world? It may not be as many event organizers and league convenors as much as risk managers, social workers or people familiar with public health matters.

Whatever you define as the modern skills and capabilities you now need, ensure you build flexibility in. Your ability to scale up to meet programming needs, and scale back if we have an infection relapse will be more valuable over the next two years than anything else.

4. Avoid significant financial commitments or capital investments

If you are building flexibility into your planning, people and decision-making, don’t let it all come undone by engaging in long-term financial commitments that hamper your ability to unleash your new-found manoeuvrability.

Needless to say, now is not the time to decide to build a new indoor sports facility or invest in an expensive new IT system. Its not that such items aren’t important. Its just that you shouldn’t be taking on that risk right now. Its time to bet one chip, not go all-in, even if you are holding a full house. Liquidity is king right now. Your core goal is to protect it like Fort Knox.

Where possible, keep your financial commitments in line with your shortened operational planning cycles. If you can exit legacy financial commitments to improve this flexibility, do it (even if you face a manageable exit penalty). Remember, winning right now is about flexibility, not size of operations. Do what you need to do to acquire this organizational pliability.

5. Be open-minded to start again when new information arises

I recall having a discussion with an executive in the arts sector back in early April 2020. They had just cancelled their Spring programming and were coming to terms with the idea that they would have to wait until the start of their Fall season to get up and running again.

I’d read some reports already suggesting that September would be an ambitious date to call this pandemic ‘done’ and get back to normal.

‘You may realistically be looking at a New Year start,’ I suggested meekly to them.

At first they looked horrified. But then as more information became available, they realised this was the more likely contingency. So they rewrote their budgeting assumptions and planning.

Then it became apparent their re-start might be March 2021. So what did they do? They nodded, and rewrote their budget assumptions and planning to factor this in.

It would have been easy for this organization to say ‘no, we’ve committed to this date and written our budget accordingly, so we are just going to have to go with it.’ But that would be foolish. This is no time for stubbornness or digging in of heels.

I mentioned that our 24 soccer club leaders identified ‘organizational nimbleness’ as the organizational attribute they saw as most important going forward. But its important to note that second on their list was ‘courageous leadership’.

Throughout these uncertain times, you must have the courage to keep an open mindset and be prepared to accept new realities as new information comes available. This might mean having to confront and deal with more bad news (especially if this ‘second wave’ actually transpires).

But if the goalposts are moved on you, remember this. What you assumed or planned for before isn’t now ‘wrong’. Its just that the game has changed and there are now new rules with fresh implications. Have the courage to recognize it, accept it and adapt quickly, even if it may not please everyone. If a different pitch is being thrown, react to it. Change it up. Its what great leaders do.

Paul Varian is the President of Capitis Consulting Inc., a boutique management consultancy focused on adding value in and around the amateur sport Boardroom.