Planning strategic programmes in uncertain times

Colleagues in an office discussing programme files on the table

The Covid-19 pandemic is one example of how uncertainty affects the economy and, consequently, business’ ability to grow and expand their product lines and services.

Therefore, risk management influences their willingness to change, adapt and diversify or simply protect the assets they have.

Some companies – particularly start-ups and younger companies that have grown up in the age of accelerating digital disruption – equate uncertainty with opportunity. These companies are often better placed to react quickly as opposed to older, longer-established businesses whose inherent systems and processes are not.

Is your organization ready for a change programme?

When considering a programme of change in uncertain times, there are two main factors: first, how does it fit with your organization’s overall corporate strategy? Second, what are you able to do as opposed to what you’re willing to do?

Before making major decisions about change, there are best practice tools and approaches that can help.

For example, risk logs and risk assessment meetings focus on a description of the risks, their level of probability, their associated costs and the resulting level of risk appetite in the organization.

Using such tools, especially in the current climate, ensures a better awareness and clarity about risk and an improved capability to make the right decisions about change.

Planning strategic programmes – the challenges 

Lack of clarity about the overall strategy for a business leads to confusion about what people should or shouldn’t do. As a result, they tend to react tactically.

That might be a valid response if the strategy no longer stacks up, but it’s no replacement for having a strategy to secure the long-term viability of the business.

For example, a city centre business previously reliant on office-based commuters for its revenues – and waiting patiently for them to return – could be setting itself up for failure if the current remote working model remains. The original business strategy is no longer valid and the business must introduce a programme of change to survive.

So, what other best practice methods can help smooth the planning of a change programme?

  1. Instilling strong governance but allowing for effective flows of information. Red tape makes it hard to react to change and this can lead to weeks wasted to get approval on just one thing. Effective communication between project and programme levels plus regular meetings, working groups and documentation – as recommended in PRINCE2® – are vital.
  1. Bringing people together during a time of remote working and engaging with those who are finding it difficult to attend every meeting because of family commitments is important. Working around people’s personal obligations at home – including home schooling and childcare responsibilities – is the more human approach to change that’s needed right now.  
  1. Does a project have enough capacity to meet the anticipated timelines? If a project is dragging, it might be a better decision to postpone or close it altogether. Doing this could give more traction to other projects within the programme. 

What can programmes achieve realistically in uncertain times? 

Having a well-defined strategy that’s relevant to the circumstances created by uncertainty and your risk appetite will help a business react and make decisions more quickly.

So, if the pandemic has made your bricks and mortar premises non-viable, then it’s time to invest in a programme of change to online trading and developing partnerships with delivery companies.

Clearly, some operations teams can be resistant to this level of change, but companies need to shift this perception of change as “the enemy”. This means bringing staff on the journey through employee engagement so they are more willing to buy into it; for this, it can’t rely on just a project manager sending an email; it requires interaction from the CEO and HR to reassure their people.

A programme offers a new vision for the company and people need to be persuaded that it is both positive and often inevitable in uncertain times. The quicker most people are able to understand the need for change, the easier it will be.

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