Laura Gordon: Covid turns planning process on its head

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Uncertainty is a challenge for all businesses, no matter their sector.

Every company has to deal with it in one form or another, and sadly that has been amplified over the past year. But it’s important not to let uncertainty lead to inaction, as the way you handle it is crucial in determining the fate of your business.

Author and innovation consultant Tim Kastelle once said: “We can’t use not knowing as an excuse not to act, because we never know”.

And he’s right. But here’s the big question – is it possible to plan for the unplanned?

It is not as contradictory as it sounds. The answer is yes – there are a number of steps business leaders can take so they better withstand the unexpected.

Focus on controlling the controllables. Forget the things you can’t influence or change.

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Carry out a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis so you know your strengths and weaknesses, allowing you to address the things that could leave you vulnerable. Invest in your people and your company culture so you have a high-performing workforce that will make your business more resilient. And be prepared to be flexible and to adapt your business model if the need arises.

Here’s the thing with Covid, though. Not only is it a challenge on a totally different scale – it has actually turned our planning and decision-making process on its head.

This fact really hit home when I read an article by Giorgia Presento, a behavioural scientist and change management consultant, who analysed the situation we now find ourselves in.

She pointed out that human beings tend to associate the present with certainty, and the future with uncertainty. And she noted that in a pandemic world, this paradigm has shifted and we are better able to predict the long term than the short term.

It’s so true. Not so long ago it was probably fairly easy to predict business performance for the coming weeks or months, but harder to forecast years into the future.

Fast forward to today, when many businesses have no idea if they’ll be able to open from one week to the next. All they know is that there’s a chance normality will be restored way down the line after a vaccine programme roll-out.

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This means the way we make decisions needs to adapt.

Many companies such as professional services firms may thrive under these conditions, because long-term planning is what they do.

But those operating in arenas like hospitality and retail need to take swift action and shift their thinking. What’s needed is diversity of perspective, and quick and decisive action.

I saw a brilliant example of a company that did this recently and it paid dividends. Leeds-based airport taxi firm Arrow Cars took a huge hit when the pandemic caused revenue to nosedive by 90 per cent. It quickly pivoted and turned into an online supermarket called Arrow Fresh, delivering locally sourced, high-quality fresh produce and it’s now anticipating a £3m turnover this year.

There’s an excellent book called Thinking Fast and Slow written by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, that explores how and why we make choices.

The author compares fast and intuitive thinking with slow and rational thinking and it couldn’t be more relevant right now. It gives a wonderful perspective on the human mind and decision-making.

Sometimes we need to trust our instincts rather than hesitating, over-analysing or doing nothing in case we upset the apple cart – I strongly believe now is one of those times.

Laura Gordon is a CEO coach and group chair with Vistage International, a global leadership development network for CEOs

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