Planning in Uncertainty

Big questions folks are asking: is COVID ever going away? Are we going to be in a perpetual state of case surges? Are more restrictions possible?

I’m not a medical or policy expert, so I can’t answer those questions. But I can share a few lessons I’ve learned, ways I’ve changed my approach to serving clients, and ways I’m helping clients attempt to address this uncertainty.

One quick note before we start: in Texas, and really all along the Gulf Coast, we deal with uncertainty several months out of the year every year. The unpredictability of Spring rain deluges, summer Hurricanes, and the occasional winter ice storm can create a lot of unexpected headaches. While COVID has presented unique challenges, my friends, colleagues, and I know a thing or two about planning for the unexpected.

Shorten the Planning Horizon

One of the most valuable lessons from crisis planning and response is to use shorter planning timelines. I’ve never been a huge fan of five- and ten-year strategic plans because life changes too quickly. But perhaps we’re beginning to see value to shortening from two- and three-year plans down to eighteen of twenty-four months. The beauty of shorter time horizons is increased flexibility and adaptability. The plan can be tweaked, updated, changed, or scrapped and re-built very quickly when the planning time horizon is shorter because changes to the plan have less of a negative impact on future plans and targets.

Be Willing to Abandon a Good Plan

Related to shortening planning horizons is the willingness to abandon good plans. I’ve long said that the value of a strategic plan (and your personal to-do list) is not completing everything in the plan but having decision making criteria against which to evaluate new information. A complete, clear, current to-do list allows you to respond yes or no with a clear conscience to an unexpected lunch invitation. A thorough strategic plan allows an organization to, in good conscience, take on a new client or fire a bad client. If we only see those changes to plan as inconveniences and disruptions, we’re only getting half (or less) of the plan’s value. If we’re willing to take in new information and act on it, even at the expense of a good plan, we’re maximizing our decision criteria’s value.

Factor in Slack or Excess Capacity

I’ve written other entire posts on this topic, but it’s worth re-iterating: overcommitting resources will always hinder your ability to adapt to a changing reality. Put simply: leave some slack resources or excess capacity as part of your plans. It’s the greatest gift you can give your future self who needs some peace during an unexpected emergency.

Take Advantage of Positive Opportunities

Being too attached to or buried in a long-term plan causes many people to miss or stubbornly say no to positive opportunities. “Crisis” tends to have a negative connotation, but there are almost always silver linings to unexpected situations. Looking for those silver linings and even exploiting them is one of the key things successful businesses do during crises. Many amazing inventions and businesses have exploded into uncharted territory because of jumping on a positive opportunity in an emergency. See the previous tip for a useful suggestion on how to capitalize on positive opportunities…

Retain Optimism

Last and most important: keep faith that you will prevail. This one is so simple, but so critical. We should never hide from or be afraid to confront the brutal reality of a crisis or challenging situation, but that should never deter both our confidence and will to find a way to succeed despite the crisis. Those who believe they can and will succeed most often do.

Regardless of the future of COVID, other crises, emergencies, and unique-to-you challenges will come in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. These are a few valuable tips that I hope will help you, as they have many of my clients, survive and thrive in uncertainty.

h/t to my friend Charles Teel for inspiring this post


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Craig A. Escamilla
Craig A. Escamilla
Craig Escamilla helps you find solutions before problems exist. With fifteen years of consulting, teaching, and senior management experience, Craig brings a wealth of practical expertise to helping others work on rather than in their businesses.

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