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Planning When The Future is Murky. Three actions to Manage Uncertainty

Can’t get parts from Mexico. An outbreak stops production. Sanitation protocols and social distancing determine schedules, workspaces and workflows. Some employees don’t feel safe at work. Others lack childcare or are quarantined at home. Demand surges or fails to return. Cash dwindles.  

Companies only can speak with authority for a couple months down the road. Facing uncertainty as the pandemic levels off only to rise again and change directions, organizations need ways to reduce or at least cope with the unknown. It’s wise to appraise the current situation on a regular basis to understand what is going on and to determine how your efforts are best directed. Surveying the work environment for the key concerns that require action is no small task. But here are three activities that can bring some order to today’s uncertainty.

  • List issues that demand action. What problems do we need to address now? What decisions need to be made? What projects need to be reevaluated? What changes need to be made?

These questions are starting points for discussion. Eventually they will be a list of problems, decisions, and future-oriented threats and opportunities that deserve consideration.

In successive surveys of CFOs,  from April to mid-June 2020, CFOs reported a growing concern about a second wave of Covid-19 and changing perspectives from April to June. For example, cybersecurity concerns tripled from April to June as organizations shifted to remote working, while concerns about worker productivity eased during this period as organizations acclimated to working from home. The changes in surveyed CFO concerns underscores the value of appraising current concerns regularly and adjusting priorities based on current information, concerns and perceptions.

  • Separate and clarify concerns. Clarifying concerns focuses actions. A combination of concerns presenting themselves as one situation cannot be dealt with effectively.

It’s necessary to consider if this is actually a single concern (the knowledge management system update is running late) or a composite of multiple concerns (access from remote locations needs enhanced security, databases must be migrated without downtime, etc.). If a concern is a composite of issues, each must be isolated and addressed. Considering what actions are suggested by a concern separates and clarifies what needs to be done and helps in evaluating the relative priority of each action.

A Hollywood studio planning to restart production is not only faced with “finish the final three days of shooting that were cancelled in March” but with many specific issues that must be prioritized and addressed. These could include a range of issues such as how to ensure the health of key, irreplaceable actors, how to shoot a crowd scene when mandates restrict gatherings to 10 people, or how to replace no longer available equipment.

  • Consider seriousness, urgency, and growth. Each discrete issue extracted has its own unique features and claims to priority. During this time of uncertainty, priorities will change.

As safety issues rank highest in seriousness, urgency and growth, they replace former high-priority concerns that drove activity in the past (scheduling, budgets, marketing plans, etc.). It requires real discipline to reset current priorities on the basis of relative seriousness, urgency, and probable future growth, especially when a concern like cost is pushed aside by safety needs. But the results are worth the discipline. Nothing brings home the wisdom of setting current, rational priorities better than the negative effects of their absence.

The uncertainty created by the pandemic requires businesses to focus on the days and weeks immediately ahead. It is difficult to plan more than two to three months out at a time.

Uncertainty management requires frequent appraisals of current concerns based on relevant information and cooperative assessments of priorities. While it may feel like a diversion, conducting situation appraisals will focus resources effectively and reduce the probability of undesirable outcomes that impact the sustainability and success of the business.

About Kepner-Tregoe

We all hope that you are well during this disruptive time in our world’s history.  For over 60 years our company, Kepner-Tregoe has had the opportunity to help major organizations navigate successfully through radical change, help solve intractable problems and increase incident and problem-management performance through tools, training and consulting – leading to highly effective teams ready to respond to your company’s most critical issues.

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