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COVID-19: learning how to plan for the unexpected

Published on 27 April 2020

COVID-19: learning how to plan for the unexpected

If ever there was a time for good planning, this is it. This pandemic has been without doubt ‘disruptive’. Not only do we need to respond ‘in the moment’, but it can also be a positive catalyst for rethinking our operating model and strategic objectives.

It’s during challenging times that our preparation is put to the test. We can avoid classic mistakes by drawing on experience across the professional network (crystallised knowledge) while remaining inventive (fluid thinking). Of course, there is a cost to being prepared for extremes. How do you choose to pay for this? In advance, with an expandable operating model and the cost built in? Or afterwards, taking the risk and hitting costs when it does happen?

The unknown unknowns
This was a type of disruption not seen before. So, when did this move from being un-forecast to being planned for? That’s a critical judgement, with different answers in different places. Try charting the phases, so that in future we can draw learning. First, there was an awkward time, when ‘all we could do was wait’. Notice that different countries and organisations did different things here. Then, within days we went from almost normal movement to social distancing and schools closing. Those with homeworking capability had the advantage. Technology played a key role. Many were now playing catch-up. Then there was a period where it was no longer new, but no-one knew how long it would last. This itself can be broken down into stages. At each point how did we plan? What did we communicate? 

Creating Certainty 
It is easy to become overwhelmed with the uncertainty. We turn the tide when we see that, at each phase, we move forward to a new ‘business as usual’. We can play a part in shaping and delivering that. Business objectives will change, with an updated budget plan. What is expected of individuals will change too and the operating model at each stage may require changes in operating hours, contact channels, priorities by contact type etc. Moreover, in the end, we won’t just return to how things were, but a new normal shaped by the changes we make along the way. This acceptance is part of feeling more ‘in control’. There is an opportunity to adapt new approaches to resourcing and scheduling, but stamp any changes as temporary, with a clear start and review date. There will be changes in how we manage, with shifts, time out, breaks, 1:1s and team meeting. Try to stay focussed on objectives, however much these are changed. While you may compare against the original plan to analyse variance, it is most important to track and report against new measures. This is also part of feeling ‘in control’. 

You’re not on your own 
During unprecedented moments like this, it is important to remember you’re not on your own. The Forum is your safe environment to share ideas, use as a sounding board and support you through testing times. One piece of advice from each of our Planning for COVID-19 series is to track, tag and observe your data. Capture as much as you can, with useful tags and timelines, so this time next year you can look back, without any bias, and really capture the learning. 

Five top tips for operations and planning teams 

  1. Broadcast updates at regular intervals. Tell people when to expect changes. You don’t need all the answers now. Use holding messages, web updates, apps, text or even email. 
  2. Reset key objectives. So, change reports if they’re not fit for purpose. Focus against the new expectations. 
  3. Introduce flexibility options. Test and learn, but state clearly that these are a trial, not permanent, and set a review date. 
  4. Trust your people (often at home). Support them, ask what helps. Capture feedback now, so that you can learn later. 
  5. Don’t talk about “going back to business as usual”. You are only going forward. Even when things are more stable, it will be just another new way of working. 

This article was first published in the 2020 Best Practice Guide - 2020 Vision: Crystallising your knowledge

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

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