Planning in a crisis can feel like a fruitless exercise – ideas and insights that go on a page somewhere only to be null and void after another cycle in a messy fast paced rapidly changing environment that produces a constant and relentless set of urgent pressing decisions. Take plans for reopening a business after lockdown for example – I’m sure many organisations have made multiple plans only to have to mothball them again as lockdown has been extended or constraints on businesses have changed again and again.
What is the right approach to putting a plan together in a crisis – how much time and focus should you dedicate to it given the more urgent operational claims on your time? How much should it incorporate the crisis or look beyond it? Only you can decide the answers to these questions, and we don’t for a minute underestimate the heartbreaking choices you may need to make but we offer a menu of options in practical planning that may help you in managing your organisation’s future in these challenging times.
Identify your most important business objective: what is your key business objective in this crisis? Is it to survive? Is it to pivot permanently or in the short term into a new line? Is it to be bought out? Choose what is most important to you/your organisation and build that plan. A personal services business carried into the crisis some strategic challenges that the founder had collected over time: a new opportunity with the corporate well-being market, staffing challenges where the service levels were not right, but a loyal and committed customer base. The choice had to be made - what was the most important? After reflection it was clear – to have a business at the end of COVID the loyal customer base was crucial. Once that decision had been made, the rest fell into place – the corporate idea was parked, staffing brought down to what was needed to service those customers and survival became possible.
Your purpose as a litmus test: a crisis can throw lots of opportunities at you to pivot into new markets or services or products. There are some great examples of this – clothing companies making PPE, restaurants doing home cooking. How do you decide if these opportunities could become a distraction or a way of sustaining the organisation through the crisis or a long-term business stream? If you are clear on your purpose, you can assess opportunities as they emerge against that purpose. One question that has always been insightful in my career: “is my organisation (or part thereof) the natural owner of this opportunity?”
Explore the environment: Crises present opportunities. Sticking resolutely with the plan written before a crisis may be the worst thing you can do. Be alert to the environment – in a crisis we tend to ‘hunker down’. Is this the time to seek legislative reform, or test different customer partnerships, or step into an emerging growth market? You will not know unless you get out of the bunker.
Scenario planning & optionality: Sometimes there just isn’t one strategic option. Maybe the environment is changing so rapidly you must run multiple scenarios, or perhaps like the small business I mentioned earlier there are options that pre-date the crisis – maybe an equity buy-out or a decision to retain ownership. Finding what targets are common to all and doubling down on those increases the chances of coming out the other side with those options, avoiding dilution and maintaining focus.
Get it roughly right: as humans we love certainty and work hard to eliminate ambiguity because it gives us a sense of control. Our tendency in planning is often to seek precision. Like building digital experiences in an agile environment, MVP – or minimum viable product does not seek perfection but to get into market and improve from there guided by customers. A plan in a crisis environment is a great candidate for MVP – get it roughly right and get moving because the environment will tell you quickly if you are on track or not (more quickly than in a stable environment!)
Muster your courage: any plan that stretches the organisation beyond what you are already doing takes courage. Leadership, wisdom, perspective, and courage are the main ingredients that your strategy will need to come to fruition in a crisis. Look after yourself as a leader, so you have the energy to carry the team. Overcommunicate even when you do not have answers as this will keep the team focused and engaged in the strategic questions. Don’t let them waste time speculating in the absence of information. Be honest if you do not have the answers, they will get it and they may have answers for you.