When we first set out to create a new corporate strategy for EDC, we did not expect to find ourselves in the middle of a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, we decided that we could in fact continue with our strategy development while also responding to the immediate and urgent needs of the Canadian business community.

Our approach to strategy development was simple: we used a new process, took a longer-term view, and focused on impact versus growth. The lessons we learned through that exercise stand to benefit any organization wondering how to plan for the future in today’s uncertain times.

Start with a clear goal

We knew we wanted to better help Canadian exporters and make a bigger impact on Canada’s trade over the next 10 years. That became our “North Star”. We also realized people are more likely to be inspired by a shared vision than simply execute a received plan that’s rooted in a common past, so articulating that North Star clearly to everyone throughout the organization was crucial.

Choose the right timeframe

Every business has its own cycles. Planning beyond the next horizon can help organizations be proactive and self-guided instead of reactive and driven by external forces. When we looked into the future as part of our strategy-development process, we realized Canada’s economy could be very different 10 years down the road from today. Automation and digitization are reshaping industry, corporations are being driven by environmental, sustainability and corporate governance (ESG) mandates, and the disruptive consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for years to come.

To address that future reality, we set our planning window to 2030—taking a page from Asian business culture, which routinely stretches its thinking 10, 20 and even 50 years out. Our new longer-term view better positions EDC to help Canadian exporters understand and succeed in the Canadian economy to come. 

Put it to the test

Plans need to be challenged to determine if the direction set is the right one. We struck a dedicated team to build a pipeline of new ideas and used “if/then” modelling to see what would get us closest to our North Star versus delivering merely marginal gains.

We also realized that while most strategies project the future based on past events, ours could be more ambitious and effective if we forecasted what the future might hold and planned for that reality instead. (We recognize this requires research capacity and even scenario modelling, something not all organizations have the same means or capacity to do.)

Engage your people

We held internal consultations and conducted surveys throughout the strategy development process to involve people across the organization, and made a conscious decision not to present something “fully baked” to the organization. Instead, EDC leadership determined the “why” and the “what” and allowed the business units to help define the “how” and the “when”, giving them an active role in shaping implementation. We also gathered organic feedback via internal consultations and conducted surveys to gauge the response of the people who’d be most affected by the strategy.

Seek impact

Increasing our impact on Canada’s trade is at the core of our new strategy. Impact-based planning goes beyond our own bottom-line results and internal metrics to determine if the North Star has been reached. In our case, that means asking, “Are Canadian exporters better off? Is Canadian trade growing? Is it diversifying?” The answers depend on our customers’ performance, not just our own. While financial sustainability is key and has to be part of the picture, impact-based planning also often involves ESG-type goals (many of which have both bottom-line and social/environmental dimensions).

Seize the moment

For exporters, setting longer-term strategies and seeking opportunities to diversify their markets will help lead them—and Canada—through the pandemic and beyond. As my colleague Carl Burlock has written recently, thinking about diversification now will pay off down the road.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a “crucible” experience for Canada. Its acute strains and pressures have exposed weaknesses and highlighted strengths in the global economy for everyone to see. While now may seem like the hardest time to plan strategically, what the pandemic has revealed is that it can be extremely valuable to seize this opportunity for companies that have the time, bandwidth and resources.