Mark Bouch explores the role played by forward planning in strategically agility companies

Agile Strategy in a post-pandemic business world


In November 2019 our world changed forever, though we didn’t know it at the time. The first case of what became known as Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may be traced back to 17 November 2019 and was first identified a month later in Wuhan, China. By June 2020 the ongoing pandemic involves more than 8 million reported cases across 188 countries and territories, resulting in more than 437,000 deaths. In many developed countries, including China, Australia, Continental and Northern Europe infection rates are reducing and economies starting to emerge from lockdown. More than 3.88 million people have now recovered from COVID-19 infection.

Planning for uncertainty

Business leaders in many sectors are now thinking about how and when to return to more conventional working patterns and will need to focus on strategies for the post-COVID world. They, like everyone else, will be uncertain about the near-term future. Whilst there seems to be a general acceptance that the situation won’t quickly, if ever, return to the ‘normal’ we left behind, there isn’t much consensus about the way ahead. This article addresses some of the thought processes we recommend leaders adopt to develop strategies for the uncertain post-COVID era.

Revisit strategic goals

Many will be tempted to use pre-COVID strategy as their start point. They shouldn’t. Economists, politicians and business strategists broadly concur that we face a period of significant economic fallout and many companies will be highly vulnerable during this period. Business strategy in the post-COVID world must be coherent; put simply it must be realistic and achievable given the opportunities that exist and the capabilities your business has (or can acquire).
Your next set of strategic goals must relate to where your business is now and reflect uncertainties about the near-term future, at least until economies start to return to pre-pandemic levels. Communicating your new intent will be vital. When people are dispersed and fearful, they don’t necessarily feel part of a connected whole, or indeed believe that a now more remote organisation has their best interests at heart. This is a period where leaders should build people’s connection to the organisation’s intent, focussing beyond the maintenance or restoration of operations.

Planning for uncertainty

Uncertainty exists in many forms. We’re uncertain how government policy will play out; we may be uncertain about changes to customer demand, how and when our supply chains will resume operations; when we should re-open facilities and return to the workplace; and uncertain about the business, operational and personal risks involved. This level of uncertainty can and does, paralyse decision-making. It may seem easier to stand still or ‘wait and see’. Evidence from Gartner in May 2020 suggested that 72% of businesses they surveyed ‘don’t know yet’ when they expect to be able to re-open closed facilities. Even when government progressively eases lockdown, a better understanding of risks and suitable guidance in place, it remains unclear what proportion of our workforce will want to return to work due to uncertainties about school provision, the safety of commuting, health and well-being at work, vulnerable partners and so on, so it’s probably unrealistic to assume all staff will embrace a return to the workplace.

Prepare for uncertainty by kick-starting forward planning

Despite multi-layered levels of uncertainty, we urge business to kick-start forward planning. Faced with uncertainty, people leaders need to make the best decisions they can, adapting them as the situation changes. Firstly, determine a relevant strategic timeframe to fit your specific business context. As a default, we suggest using multiple time horizons including now, next month, up to two quarters ahead and one to two years ahead. This near-term planning is designed to bridge the gap between today and the next period of ‘normal’, whatever that looks like. Effective strategic planning requires a six-step approach which will need to be re-iterated as the situation develops, so it’s a good idea to keep it concise and repeatable from the outset:

Step 1. Describe the situation

You need to capture a realistic view of the current situation in terms that will be easily understood. Information is available from multiple sources. Some is reliable and some less so. The forward planner’s job is to look for the best sources of information then determine their level of confidence in the assumptions made. Keep it high-level and focus on what matters most, not the detail. Up-to-date situational awareness enables effective decision-making.

Step 2. Develop realistic scenarios

Despite the uncertainty, it is usually possible to at least develop some plausible scenarios describing a range of possible future outcomes. None of them will be precisely correct. It doesn’t matter how likely or unlikely they are provided they are credible based on your understanding of the situation. They should represent a range of possible outcomes and include the ‘worst case’ outcome you can realistically imagine. In time the actual outcome, determined by reality, will probably be a hybrid of some of the scenarios you describe.

Step 3. Determine your intent

The next stage is to determine your intent. This provides a ‘compass heading’ or broad direction of travel based on your beliefs. In typical strategy development processes leaders define and commit to strategic outcomes or end-states. Surrounded by high uncertainty, leaders don’t need to be precise but should spell out the new situation, new realities, what they are planning to achieve and, critically, why it is important. Creating a goal that matters to everyone provides a single unifying purpose for your organisation. But it’s only worthwhile if it is realistic given the post-COVID opportunities likely to be available and your organisation’s capability.

Step 4. Screen your existing portfolio of strategic initiatives

Many businesses already have a portfolio of strategic initiatives, but these initiatives pre-date COVID, so review them against your new scenarios, deciding whether they should stop, continue or accelerate. Stopping activity is always tough but makes resources available for new priorities.

Step 5. Develop your playbook

A range of scenarios enables you to test where and how the business is most at risk and identify strategic actions most important for your long-term survival. Based on the assumptions you’ve made and your intent, the next step is to develop and validate some strategic courses of action (COA) relevant to a range of scenarios. Each will have advantages and disadvantages, different impact and levels of difficulty associated with implementation. These need rigorous examination to evaluate them, rule out any that are unrealistic and identify those able to be initiated irrespective of the scenario. If your organisation has time and resources, COA should be stress-tested in a ‘socially distanced’ desktop operational rehearsal to assess their effectiveness.

Step 6. Support effective decision-making

Decisions about which COA (or combination of COA) should be followed is generally vested in senior executive teams; they are briefed by forward planners. To drive effective and timely decision-making the team should identify the critical information required to confirm which scenario is playing out. When these indicators are observed they trigger executive decision points.

Who should be involved in forward planning?

Forward planning teams should be executive-led, accountable to the CEO and supported by a cross-functional team of the best people your business can muster. They need to be creative, forward-thinking experts, with deep experience of business strategy, operations, customer segments and the supply chain. Don’t give the job to the executive committee: they should be focused on other things including strategic financing and a return to the workplace.

Matching resources to new priorities

The danger in any strategic planning cycle is that budgets can constrain your options. Your existing budget was designed for a different set of circumstances. Your forward planning effort will be wasted if it doesn’t result in a close alignment of resources to plans. Resources now need to be preserved to maintain resilience and provide headroom for investing in new strategic priorities. A more agile approach in uncertain conditions will identify what is required in the post-COVID world. We suggest using basic ‘zero-basing’ principles which force the organisation to redefine what is needed from a clean sheet (the zero base) rather than last year’s plan. With finite resources this approach supports more dynamic resource allocation, enabling investment to be shifted to strategic opportunities as new scenarios emerge.

In the post-pandemic world, there is a compelling need for agile approaches to strategy

We expect people leaders, driven by well-placed consideration for staff health and well-being, to take slow tentative steps towards restarting the workplace. And many will be tempted to wait and see what the future holds rather than strategise. This may appear to be a credible approach because it’s unlikely any plan you could make will be imperfect, and you can be confident it will rapidly outdate. Despite the temptation to ‘wait and see’, there are compelling reasons to move fast. In uncertain times, speed matters more than perfection.

This implies an iterative ‘agile’ approach to strategy, revisiting stages as the situation changes and checking assumptions remain relevant. A structured forward planning approach helps business leaders create an advantage by moving fast but retaining the agility to learn and adapt as the situation changes.

Source material:

1. COVID-19: A Note for Leaders. Dr Stephen Bungay March 2020.
2. Implementing Beyond Budgeting. Bjarte Bogsnes Published by Wiley in 2016
3. Getting ahead of the next stage of the coronavirus crisis. McKinsey & Co April 2020

Understanding uncertainty

McKinsey published a classic article Strategy Under Uncertainty in 2000. The article highlighted that traditional approaches to strategy assume executives can predict a company’s future accurately enough to choose a clear, unambiguous strategic direction. This may be true when a marketplace remains static for many years at a time and the pace of change is slow or predictable. Under these circumstances there is high confidence about the future and consensus on the way ahead is relatively easy to achieve. McKinsey pointed out that the precise predictions required for this traditional approach to strategy often lead executives to underestimate uncertainty. This can be misleading and at worst extremely dangerous.

The article recommended putting uncertainty at the heart of business strategy and defined 4 levels of uncertainty to help managers understand the level of uncertainty surrounding their strategic decisions:

McKinsey 4 levels of uncertainty

Level 1. The future is clear enough for a single plan, though its details may later be refined.

Level 2. Executives can foresee a number of possible futures, with certainty one will occur.

Level 3. Uncertainty doesn’t permit distinct scenarios, but you can anticipate a range of futures, and the actual outcome may lie anywhere within it. You know what you don’t know.

Level 4. In the fourth level, you don’t know even that, so you can’t forecast outcomes at all.

Levels 3 and 4 characterise the situation for many companies in the dynamic and uncertain world we face in the 2020s. They have some parallels with United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks at a US Department of Defense News Briefing on February 12, 2002:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones”


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