Business guide to Coronavirus

Future planning at a time of crisis

Anticipating and preparing for change is how futurists earn their living. As businesses of all stripes grapple with the disruption the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, Futures Foundation chairman Charles Brass shares some advice on charting your course at this extraordinarily challenging time.

In the current climate of immense uncertainty, is it useful, or even possible, for business owners to look past the present day and make plans for the longer term?

Yes. The only thing that’s different about the situation we’re in now, versus other disruptions, is that it’s further away from the normal. People talk about COVID-19 being unprecedented and, while that is true, the fact is, the future is inherently uncertain, all of the time. It never becomes more certain. One of the mistakes people make is believing, somehow, that it is, and then they relax their thinking and preparing and planning for things.

The truth is, you should be doing the same stuff now that you’ve been doing all the way along – identifying the situation you’re in, working out how you arrived here, looking at what you can see of the immediate future, and then examining the various alternatives available to you. You then have to decide which of those alternatives you like and think about how you can make them happen. Those same rules apply in any situation.

How might a small business owner go about ‘rebooting’ their planning process to reflect the ‘new normal’ the COVID-19 crisis has created?

Begin by reminding yourself you are never alone. Planning is not a solitary activity and it never focuses only on you or your business. As a business owner, you’re connected in all sorts of ways and you’re influencing, and reliant upon, all sorts of others. So, the planning process always involves thinking about, and perhaps engaging with, other people.

That’s certainly true at the moment. All kinds of people are intervening in the system we operate in, most notably the government, which is attempting to put various things in place. But it goes beyond that. Your business is part of an ecosystem that involves suppliers, customers and staff. That ecosystem is being affected in the same way you are, every part of it is adjusting in all sorts of ways.

Don’t isolate yourself from it. The worst thing you can do is withdraw inside yourself, or inside your own business, tempting as it may be to do so in situations like this.

Do you have an example of how a business might benefit by connecting within that ecosystem during the COVID-19 crisis?

When the CEO of Qantas shut their operations down, the first call he made was to the CEO of Woolworths, to say, ‘You’re looking for people, I’ve got people. Can we work something out here?’ At one level, the last thing you would think of is a flight attendant or a pilot working in Woolworths but, at another level, it makes perfect sense.

We’ve got a need in one area that’s expanding and, on the other side, a need is diminishing. Inside the ecosystem a small business is operating in, people are making all kinds of decisions. The more they talk to each other, the more they coordinate and think together, the better off they’re going to be.

Will ad-hoc planning help businesses weather the COVID-19 crisis better? Is that likely to be the key to longer term survival?

Businesses that come out of this best will be those that react best. Even if you haven’t done much planning yet, it’s not necessarily too late – you might still be able to connect in ways you can’t yet imagine.

Look at the regional businesses that set up websites during the 2019-20 bushfires, for example. Even though people couldn’t travel there, they were still able to sell their products online. That was a sensible response in a crisis, one which would also continue to benefit those businesses after the crisis passed.

It’s likely there are things you can do now that will help you come out at the other end. A lesson that should be at the back of everybody’s mind is this: when we reach the end of this COVID-19 crisis, it will be important to set aside some time and resources to start planning for the next disruption.

To learn more about how to protect your business in times of crisis, visit our free resource centre.

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