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Gain confidence by planning ahead

Columnist Dave Conrad says you can plan for the unknown without living in a state of panic.

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Dear Dave,

I don’t think our recent economic challenges have taught us much. My fellow managers don’t consider all of the possible things that can go wrong, not to mention having a plan ready for when things run amuck. What should be done? How can we think about things that can go wrong? And how can we make any plans we create operational? Sorry to ask so many questions.

— T

Dear T,

In light of the devastation from U.S. hurricanes and other national disasters there is vast criticism regarding the lack of planning for these catastrophes. We have seen crippling negligence for economic contingency planning from banking, corporations, and government, and the lack of “reading the smoke signals” of what is happening and how bad things can be.

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I am all for planning and making routine and unique ideas and plans actionable, but I am also all for considering and planning for the monstrous things that can go wrong. There must be a balance of both — keeping one eye open to a project or plan and keeping the other eye trained to assess the environment — both inside and outside of the organization. Here are some important factors to consider.

Problem: Often, the business plan train is barreling so fast down the tracks, no one dares to say, “Hey, where are we really heading and what can go wrong?” Folks who ask those necessary questions are condemned for not being “team players” and are just being “so gosh darn negative.” And nobody wants to work with negative naysayers.

Groupthink: Sadly, people get so locked into a plan or strategy they will not change come heck or high water. This is especially true for those who originated the plan and feel ownership, defending the plan at all costs — even though, in their heart, they know the plan is lousy. These managers insist everyone stay the path and come to consensus — agreeing the plan will work and only needs more time, energy, and money. Yes, lots of money.

Planning: Being prepared for the unexpected and undesired is a vital aspect of business management that needs training, attention and rehearsals. A company should not live and work within a crisis state. However, consideration must be given to things that can go wrong or have gone wrong in the past.

I always taught my MBA students that strategies are both planned and emerging. This means you plan, but be prepared to let the emerging truth guide changes to your strategy. In that regard, companies should do the following:

Develop business continuity planning: Besides lessening negative impact for all personnel, the objectives of business continuity planning include minimizing interruptions to the business's ability to provide its products and/or services, minimizing financial loss, and being able to maintain critical operations. Have contingency plans to fall back on when needed. Consider Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

Survive the unthinkable through planning: Keep in mind these four key facts about problems: 1) they will occur, 2) you have to have a plan before they hit, 3) react with urgency, but don't panic, and 4) ride it out.

Teaching is preparation: How can we sell this planning devotion to others? We cannot let up from reminding people what can happen — yup, learning from history — if we do not think about and prepare for the major things that can go wrong. We also must persuasively explain to managers that we can focus and be aware at the same time.

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Scrutinize your strategy: Of course, awareness and environmental scanning for problems is one thing, being prepared is another. We need to Plan B ourselves to death. But we must practice and persuade management of the need to brainstorm, assess and prioritize “what if’s” leading to recourse strategies.

Get your staff involved: Employee involvement brings engagement, and it is more than just knowing whether someone likes their job or not. Measuring employee engagement lets you know how committed they are to the business and its success. It tells you how motivated they are and how emotionally invested they are in the work they are doing and the targets that must be achieved.

Capturing the vision: For any employee to be engaged, they need to be motivated to work hard towards a common goal that is in line with the company’s vision. They will then be committed to the values their organization represents. Managers must build a workforce that is not just content but are also goal-oriented, motivated, respectful, and they believe they are a valued part of the company.

The idea of just having satisfied employees may be enough for some managers but maintaining high levels of employee engagement is important for many reasons. When your employees are engaged, the workplace environment becomes a place of positive attitudes.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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