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JA Consulting | Planning quickly for challenging and uncertain scenarios



In recent weeks, businesses have been compelled to respond quickly to severe disruption to long-established routines. Organisations have reset their configurations for the next few weeks or months.

It is already quite clear that a return to the previous ‘norm’ looks some way off at best. Covid-19 seems set to impact business models over an extended period and organisations that simply wait to see how things pan out risk being vulnerable to an uncertain future. Businesses might be familiar with planning on a gradually evolving basis, modelling a small number of variables each year. But the current circumstances call for something more radical. Luckily some sectors are used to planning quickly for challenging and uncertain scenarios and the military in particular excel in these conditions.

Here, Ian MacGillivray draws on his experience in the Royal Navy to understand how businesses might learn.

Tip 1: Form a bespoke planning team and let others know it’s happening

First, it is neither necessary nor desirable for the majority in an organisation to feel confused or anxious in the face of uncertainty. Better to address the response efficiently using a dedicated team, led by someone who enjoys the confidence of the organisation’s senior leaders.

Informing the rest of the organisation about the purpose of the planning task and an initial time-frame will help establish a sense of transparency and a degree of reassurance. These in turn should help others focus on what they can do in the meantime.

Tip 2: Set clear initial objectives

An important job of senior leadership is to set clear objectives and boundaries. Whilst overall the aim is to come up with a credible response to future circumstances, knowing from the outset where the leadership is setting its sights helps to channel work and flush out inconsistencies. Questions to help frame planning team guidance might include:

  • What is the overarching goal? (Previously established goals might need to change.)
  • What are the most important assets and capabilities to protect?
  • What should be assumed? Are any factors specifically out of scope?
  • Are specific opportunities or threats to be looked at?
  • How quickly does the organisation need to act? (A reasonably stretching deadline for a first cut of the plan will help create urgency.)

Tip 3: Use a structured format to address simple questions, mindful of real world time

Military planners use a 3-column format to work through considerations. Questions for an organisation will depend on sector and specific circumstances, however common considerations are likely to include the market and people. (For example, how will our market change through and beyond “lock-down”; how long can we keep going as currently configured?) It helps to break down considerations into clear threads, with key areas likely to include:

  • Core business operations and processes.
  • People (and their skills)
  • Finance
  • Compliance (legal / regulatory)
  • Other stakeholders

Against each question / factor, the ‘so what’ should be captured along with an output of the consideration. Outputs can range from clear conclusions for the plan, through options and guidance, to a requirement for further information, in which case a mechanism should be established to manage answers to and from outside the planning team.

Question/Issue Consideration Output
The question / factor being considered. So what? ·         Clear conclusions and tasks

·         Options and guidance

·         Further information needed

etc. etc etc.

Linking thinking and planning to a real-world timeline is also essential. Despite time being our ever-flowing constant, we humans can lose track of it. It can catch us out (and we can also become paralysed with confusion). Anchoring work to real time (perhaps initially using a virtual whiteboard) can be a simple yet powerful way of channelling thinking and keeping it relevant.

Tip 4: Consider alternative scenarios to generate contingency plans

Looking towards an uncertain future is bound to highlight a range of possible scenarios. Whilst the organisation should aim to adopt a single plan for implementation, different real-world outcomes may require different responses, so it makes sense to create what the military call contingency plans (CONPLANS). Formulating responses for different scenarios is not only valuable because plans can be put on the shelf for rapid adoption, but also because solutions discovered through this process can have utility in the main plan too.

Forming a smaller, ‘red cell’ to think independently of the main planning team can help broaden perspective. For example, whilst most people may be thinking of negative business consequences of Coronavirus, perhaps the possibility of a downstream surge in demand needs to be taken seriously. And noting the far-reaching tentacles of the pandemic, once the most immediately relevant factors have been considered, it might pay to look at things through a more strategic framework such as PEST / PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental).

Tip 5: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

Finally, planning teams can sometimes become fixated on coming up with the perfect answer. However, this is almost certainly futile in a highly uncertain context, such as the one we now face. As military people often remark, ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’, which acknowledges that no amount of analysis and planning can predict a real world future accurately. If sufficient time is available, modelling can help. But an 80% plan, produced on time through a logical process and with contingency-based variations, is better than the 100% perfect plan ….. which arrived too late.

And a final thought – remember to keep an open mind. Brilliant, creative, solution-focussed contributions can come from anyone, anywhere in your organisation. Identifying, or being part of a planning team is about helping the organisation come up with a well-formed plan, not being special.

Stay safe and well

Ian MacGillivray
Email: ianmacgillivray@jaconsulting.co.uk
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ianmacgillivray

About Ian MacGillivray Ian is a chartered engineer and systems thinker who ‘joins the dots’ quickly, bringing an insightful, holistic approach across people, process, organisation, technology and information. Ian’s career is shaped significantly through his experience as a Royal Navy Commander encompassing corporate and programme management, maritime operations, systems engineering management, communications and training delivery. Ian has a particular passion for supporting the growth, change and innovation goals of medium and smaller sized companies, higher education establishments and public sector bodies.


The coronavirus Covid-19 situation is forcing many changes to every day working and home life all over the world. With more people working from home there’s a heavy reliance on remote working and getting to grips with online communications for day to day activities.

The good news is that at JA Consulting we’ve been investigating how you can get the best out of teams when you can’t be physically co-located. Getting good at this now will reap you dividends in the future – the skills you embed in the organisation and your people will no doubt bring greater efficiency, improved environmental output and even some cost savings when we’re all free to go back to ‘normal’.

Over the coming weeks we’ll continue to share some tips from our experts and invited guests about how to keep your business running remotely.