Making Forward Planning Easier to Think About

 Profile image of Steve Lobley From Spring Leadership

Steve Lobley

I remember always being curious why business leaders and their businesses didn’t grow and develop as effectively as they could – and in line with their stated ambitions. It was a great puzzle – despite knowing exactly what to do, nine times out of ten they couldn’t make the changes needed or make the right decisions to truly achieve the step changes required. It led me to the mantra from the Chinese Proverb ‘it’s not the knowing that’s difficult, it’s the doing’ – because THAT is really what it’s all about after all…

And as a result I reshaped my career from business adviser and mentor to launch myself fully into the world of coaching. My 30+ years in business from a shift manager in a textile mill to MD of a £15M business in the corporate world allowed me a unique perspective on the challenges people were facing, and with loads of experience on how to address them. 

As we continue coping with the COVID crisis and all it entails, on both a personal level and a business one, it may sometimes feel that this thing is too vast to get one’s head around.

Especially as your thoughts flit back and forth between day to day ‘busyness’ and then trying to plan for the future – whatever that might look like.

It’s vital we try to make things a bit easier to think about, perhaps by using Scenario Planning to work through what our options might be in a structured way. But before tackling that, why not try to simplify things a little in another way first. Structure your thoughts in terms of horizons or landscapes which might break up the enormity of what faces us and allow us to tackle one thing at a time.

Here are some horizons to consider to get you started:

Horizon 1: Operationally now, and in the short term

Ask yourself these questions:

How can you make sure the business runs operationally well right now, even with certain circumstances in place e.g. social distancing? Take each department in turn, review how each might be affected and work out how they can still function. Make sure the business is fit for purpose NOW, and not ‘when it’s all over’. Don’t just muddle through.

Is the business capable in as many situations as possible – i.e. really ‘match fit’?

A training analogy. Think about the postponement of The Olympics, a devastating blow to any athlete who’s waited four years to compete. The delay could either be used as an opportunity to train harder on very specific things, or as breathing space to carry on with the same training schedule. The decision is theirs but the choice of which might deliver a different result come the competition is very important.

How can you engineer and ‘train’ your business now, and where, to maximise your chance of winning that gold medal even with the crisis in place in some shape or form?

Horizon 2: Starting back up

Is there a step by step plan (in detail) of how to come out of the blocks very quickly once restrictions have lifted, fully or partially – as you had to do going into the crisis? If it’s not planned for, you will likely find yourself in another phase of crisis management if you’re not careful. Look for, and document, the triggers that will start certain actions and activities off. Be ready to go. Think about scenarios of how you will react if and when ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ happens.

Treat this as an opportunity to reassess business processes and continue doing the good things that have been learned or discovered during this time. Because there will be some. Decide which things to stop doing, start doing and carry on doing, get feedback from staff about what has been a surprise success during this time. For example, you may continue to hold your weekly team meetings via Zoom or Teams, you may make it a policy to travel less or you may have discovered more efficient ways of working in some element of your business.

It’s a good time for reflection. Bank the gains. Be ready. Make those decisions.

And remember, staff may need more support coming out of the crisis – over a potentially long period. Life in business will probably be more intense – even more VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous).

Don’t just assume everybody will be ready to go. Think about what might be needed to support them (and you).

Horizon 3: In a recession

I think most people will agree we’re heading for some sort of recession – how deep is a debate which might rage on. What’s clear though, is that a lot of businesses will not have thought through the implications of this. Make sure you’re not one of them.

Set some time aside to consider these questions:

What does the landscape look like for this business in a recession?

  • Customers – who might be the winners and losers – and why?
  • Suppliers – who might be the winners and losers – why, and what is their significance to you?
  • Costs – will they go up or down, and why?
  • Operationally – what might be the volume of work and how might that be handled (e.g. workloads and who will do what)?
  • People – the quality and effectiveness of them – are they ‘on the bus’; have they ‘stepped up’ during the crisis? How do you need them to be afterwards – in a recession – and who might they be? What roles will be required/not required? Scenario Planning is useful here too.

How does the business need to ‘look’ in response to a recession?

  • What costs will be required to make a profit – extend your cash flow forecasts a year out if you can?
  • Which roles will be needed/not needed?
  • How will you run operationally – think about this by department
  • The size and scale of the business, and what profile/skills are crucial – agile and adaptable; highly responsive; new marketing messages?
  • What is the strategic position you want to take in the new world – review your strategic plans in detail – are they still fit for purpose?

Of course, no one is saying that navigating the course of a global pandemic and possible recession will be easy for any business. But by using techniques to breakdown the enormity of a situation and consider each horizon in turn, we can possibly avoid the overwhelm and feel like we’re making progress each day. Decide which to focus on and start now.