Article: Business planning in a VUCA world

Leadership

Business planning in a VUCA world

How should business planning work in today's VUCA world? Four top business leaders from different industries shared their thoughts at People Matters TechHR India Conference last week.
Business planning in a VUCA world

Today's world is a chaotic one, in part because of the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in part because of the enormous shifts that businesses around the globe have had to make in response. The pace of change has been terrific in the last 18 months. How has this affected business planning, and what can leaders do to adapt? The CEO Power Panel, 'Continuous Planning Culture for Business Growth & Sustainability', explored this question at People Matters TechHR India Conference 2021.

Moderated by Priya Chakrabarti, Head HR at Azure Power, the panel surfaced various approaches to planning used by top business leaders from different sectors.

“Rapid changes are creating an ever increasing area of challenges as well as opportunities of building businesses that are profitable over the long term,” Priya observed. “Now these challenges have affected all operations but they have placed particular pressure on business planning.”

Here's the distilled wisdom that the leaders shared.

Planning beats planned

Amit Malik, CEO & MD at Aviva India, said: “In today's organisation and today's world, you have to have an 'If Loop'—if Plan A doesn't work and Plan B doesn't work, you go to Plan C and if C doesn't work, how fast can you get to D and E?”

Planning cycles have shortened dramatically, he pointed out—from five years to three years, then to eighteen months and now three months. What this means is that there's no longer such a thing as a foolproof plan. Instead, organisations have to have a minimum viable plan.

How is it possible to be in a state of continuous planning? “It's about empathise, define, ideate, and then prototype,” he said.

“Empathise with the customer, empathise with the situation, empathise with the employee. Define what you need to do after the empathy is over. Ideate, and then prototype, and then put that into an 'If Loop'.”

And, organisations must not forget the important softer cultural aspects. Amit listed three very crucial parts of culture that affect the ability to plan. Firstly, the courage and candour to admit when a plan should be abandoned. Secondly, the normalisation of failure, which gives the freedom to be agile. And thirdly, a digital mindset: today, every job is digital, and if it is not, something needs to change.

Organisational preparedness is the best way forward

Sandeep Chaudhary, CEO at PeopleStrong, said:

“Planning is always done looking at the rearview mirror. Preparation is done by making certain bold assumptions about the new world, the challenges, the future constraints, the opportunity areas."

"It involves taking a bit of a risk because you are going to be making a prediction about what the future essentially is going to look like, and then accordingly try and prepare yourself.”

The world, he said, needs organisational preparedness far more than it needs formal plans and statements. As a glaring example, he pointed to the trend of working from home: many organisations have the resources for remote working and some kind of allowance for it in their business continuity plans, and the technology for it was available even before the pandemic. Yet many organisations across many industries continue to resist the concept and hold onto a very conventional mindset.

Be responsive to the changing world

Nikhil Chopra, CEO and Whole Time Director at J.B. Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals, said: “There is no one plan which constantly will work for our organisation."

"Conceptually we should have a series of plans, and look at how the subsequent plans which we have put in place are changing and needs constant improvement in the changing world.”

Coming from an industry that is responsible for wellness and that revolves around people, his take on planning is deeply people-centric and focuses on the behaviour and well-being of people. There are three fundamentals to planning, he believes:

“Firstly, people don't do what you expect, but they do what you inspect, if you do it with respect,” he said. Hence, planning must involve bringing the best out of teams.

Secondly, be close to the market and on the shop floor. Leaders are responsible for the careers of thousands of people who look up to them, and they must constantly design for the team first and foremost.

And thirdly, constantly adapt to the environment. This is a tested method of succeeding in a VUCA world.

And sometimes, not focusing on a plan at all is best

Yaw Ofosu Ansong Jnr, Founder & CEO at KovaDx, said: “Personally, I don't like plans...no plan survives enemy contact.”

As an entrepreneur, who must be agile and fast-moving, always ready to change with the market, goals and constant improvement are better than planning, he said.

“Goals are broad targets that state what you want to achieve. Then, the other team members can define their own plan and constantly improve on it.”

As an example of how planning can make organisations too rigid to respond, he pointed to Microsoft's launch of Windows Vista. Even though it was one of the best operating systems on the market, the company was so fixed on it that they could not be flexible about their strategy. “They ended up launching Windows Vista alright, but because they were not flexible and they didn't have goals, they missed the mobile space, and Android took all that space. And so the bottom line is that you have to be flexible.”

How does goal-setting work? Dr. Ansong shared that as a startup and a tech company, he and his team set specific goals with specific timelines. They begin with a broad picture—launching a product within six months, for instance—and then they proceed step by step, reviewing what they are doing regularly and tracking their progress, and making heavy use of data to drive their work.

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