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The 5 principles of planning through a crisis in business

by Webinar with Chris Paton May 20, 2020
Planning Under Pressure Article
With Chris Paton - Former Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Marines & MD of Quirk Solutions

Access the full webinar recording via the form at the bottom of the page

Across various industries, sectors, sizes and stages of a career, we can often find ourselves in a situation that the Royal Marines would describe as ‘sub optimal’ – something we all refer to as a crisis. We can generally agree that this Covid-19 global pandemic is a large-scale crisis for many businesses and knowing how to navigate the situation is a task that has been handed to leaders across the board.

In the first episode of our strategy webinar series ‘managing uncertainty’, we were joined by former Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Marines and advisor to the Cabinet and National Security Council on the Afghan strategy, Chris Paton to discuss the topic of ‘planning under pressure’.

Chris saw active service in a wide range of places including Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Georgia and Afghanistan. He is now the Managing Director of Quirk solutions, a management consultancy which specialises in business resilience and execution success. They work with large brands such as Qinetic, Shell, Heineken, Waitrose, Bupa, Standard Life Investments; as well as SME’s and within the public sector.

Using his military leadership and business advisory experience, Chris shares some of the human behavioral and emotional aspects, as well as practical technical tools that you can take away and use in your own business.

Fight of flight

Overall, one of the core planning issues with these circumstances is that the whole environment is highly emotional. As soon as we find ourselves in the crisis management situation our inner ‘fight-or-flight’ response kicks in. The reaction is to take immediate action and start moving very fast. In the first instance and true of any crisis situation, business or otherwise, this is very apt. But then moving forwards, things need to be slowed down and let the analytical process kick in to think of things in a logical way.

It’s important to remember that, just as panic is infectious (and proven by toilet rolls flying off shelves), so too is calm. So, if you’re a leader of a team or a member of a team, the more companionate and caring you are with the rest of the people you’re working with then that will impact them in a positive way and help them with the situation.

Control the controllables

If you’re in a ship in the middle of a hugely volatile stormy sea, you can't control the waves and you can't control the storm. You can try and predict a little bit about what’s coming, how long the situation will last and what that means, but there’s no point trying to put any controls around it. What you can take action on is the ship, the crew and yourself. This is an important point to keep in mind about any crisis management.

So, if that’s the situation, here are five things that will help address that.

1. Keep it simple

It may sound obvious, but your five-year business plan is going to be affected. There is little point worrying about how the situation is going to impact the long-term strategy as there are too many permutations at play. So, bring it back to the time right now and think carefully about how to approach the time coming out.

When you come out, you can't just bring everybody back into work, sit down and pretend that you're back at the 1st of March 2020. Ways of working, the expectations, and the environments that you’ll be operating in will have changed. So, focus on a short timeline this week, this month and maybe the return to work, and that is pretty much it.

2. Communication

In a rapid and very fluid situation, it’s not the time for long drawn-out soliloquies. People have to be very concise and to the point. Does the message make sense to the outsider reading it? If not, then rethink it – because we’re not asking ourselves anything, we’re asking other people to do it. So, think about the person who is going to be at the sharp end receiving this communication and think about what they understand.

Another consideration is around not burying difficult messages. There may be some hard truths to share, but people will be thinking about them anyway, and talking around the issue is not going to help. Chris shared a very fitting quote from an HBR article called ‘strategic intent’ written by Hamil and Prahalad:

Essentially, you can talk as much as you like about the positive things, how we're going to get through this and be very reassuring as a leader, but if you don't get the issue out into the open, then all people will hear is ‘bla bla bla’, to put it mildly. So, getting things into the open and being transparent will help build the connections and not exacerbate any underlaying thoughts.

3. Trust

After communicating, the focus switches to trying to achieve. The problem in a fast-moving crisis is that you cannot you can’t conduct business in a hierarchical command and control fashion, and why the military stopped doing this decades ago. For a long time, the military have understood that ‘trust is tempo’ - if you want to be high tempo, then you need to have a lot of trust within the organization and devolve decision-making down.

Leaders can’t do it all – they don’t have the time and the ability to make all the decisions. So, by filtering down authority and ownership over ideas, there will be more innovation and creativity of ideas.

But how can you do this without loosing control? Chris talked through the methods for this further and practical examples - access the recording via the form below to find out more.

4. Planning

With planning, there are many different ways to build and maintain this. But, again, it’s important to keep it simple, accessible and very adaptable. In constantly evolving situation where we can’t ‘control the uncontrollables’, there is little point creating something that is set in stone as it will end up going through so many versions, becoming confusing and irrelevant. Any plan needs to be able to be flexed simply. This is where technology comes in as being a helpful tool for ongoing management.

Another too that the military use for a high intensity situation can be transferred to a business setting well. This phased approach below is used when you have to think rapidly and come up with a response quickly:

  • Situational awareness: How the crisis is affecting me/ my team/ my business/ my environment?

  • Objectives: Where do I want to be/ what does success look like?

  • Options and choices: What are the different variations to achieve outcomes

  • Resources: Don’t consider these until getting to this stage after weighing up the options

  • Synchronise: How to coordinate things better to deliver them

  • Controls: How to stop getting distracted after launch

5. Test

There are different ways to do this, but the main thing is to run some sort of test – do not come up with a plan that deals with a crisis and launch without assessing. Take the time to at least ‘kick the tires’ to make sure it’s robust.

One option is a ‘red team/ blue team’ approach. Put simply, the small (2-3 person) blue team champion the plan, working through it and describing this to the red team. The red team need to be composed of all the individuals composed of the impacts of the plan to make everyone engaged. This also helps challenge and stress-test the plan in a practical way.

A summary point to end on is that everyone likes success, and no more than in a crisis situation where those emotions are as high as the stakes. But by building on a few of these factors, keeping things simple and focusing on smaller ‘low hanging fruit’ objectives rather than really big picture goals, people start to believe in it and people start to move forwards.

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