Business Reflexes – Planning for the unpredictable part 1

Flight reflexes

You may have noticed that the weekly blog has been silent for a few weeks now. Initially this was triggered by the two week Half-term that we enjoyed in Sussex. Many families were delighted with the extra week, especially as the holiday tour operators had only lifted prices for the normal single week dates. Their reflexes were to join a near stampede to the airport for that otherwise unaffordable week of autumn sunshine on foreign shores. For those of us not taking holidays it just meant more child-care to arrange or an extended hiatus to working time.

But that is only part of the story…

Planning for the unpredictable

I was asked a question recently about how organisations should change so they can succeed in an environment where the level of uncertainty is high and expected to remain so? And not just uncertainty on one or two business dimensions (such as Sales and Staff Retention). But uncertainty across a broad front including; Competition, Substitution, Regulation, Supply Chain, Customer behaviour and Costs.

With wholesale uncertainty comes planning blight.

Your ability to plan next year’s budgets evaporates.

How to respond?

  • Do you need to redesign your organisational structure?
  • Do you need to build new capabilities?
  • How should your governance framework be adapted?

The Brighton & Hove Chamber’s Summit in October was titled ‘Embracing the Unknown’  and was the third successful annual event in the series. But my main takeaway from the full-day of speakers’ advice and workshops was that the best thing to do is to;

  • Ignore the uncertainty (because you cannot control it)
  • Keep doing what you are good at.

Which is ok…

Up to a point…

An Inquiry

This question: ‘how do you plan your business when the future is so foggy’, pulled me into an inquiry about what my best advice would be. That inquiry has had multiple strands and I have been trying to untangle the threads so that I could tell you something useful. This takes time and hence the over-extended holiday for the Weekly Blog.

Multiple Perspectives

I am a strong advocate of looking at a problem from different perspectives. I have thought about this issue from the perspectives of:

  • A physical metaphor (Fog)
  • Capabilities required
  • Changes to the decision-making framework (aka governance)
  • Reflexes

This week I’ll say something about reflexes and pick up some of the other perspectives in the coming weeks.

Experiencing reflexes

My youngest son is 18 months old. He can walk but likes to sit on my forearm so he can see what I’m doing. As his weight increases my forearm muscles have tried to keep up but they have been pulled too far on a few occasions and it is painful to lift him sometimes.

So, when he decided to do a backwards dive from such a position, I was faced with a tricky situation. Basically, do I let him fall or do I stop his fall despite the shooting pains from my arm. It is a failure of my risk management regime that I’m in that situation but what happens next is curious:

He arches back.

I start to hold him up with my dodgy arm.

It hurts.

I fear that I will not be able to stop his fall.

My body looks for alternatives. By crouching I draw him towards me and my arm (still holding him) lands on my bended knee.

He is fine. A controlled descent.

My forearm muscles are intact.

Somehow I have sensed a problem, found an alternative plan, executed it – very fast (under 2 seconds?).

What is interesting to me is that:

  • This was a new / novel mitigation for the situation
  • I ‘watched myself’ doing this but the response was a whole body reflex not a cognitive thought through response
  • The ‘Executive’ part of my brain had the sense to watch and not interfere as the body did its physical thing

This is one of several physical reflexes I have observed associated with keeping the kids safe as they grow and explore the physical world. I describe this example so that you might consider whether you have experienced a reflex in action and been able to observe it at work.

So what?

Imagine an organisation that has business reflexes.

When an unplanned for event happens that requires faster than real-time responses it reacts and re-configures people, processes, data, communications and whatever it takes to keep the ‘baby’ safe. When the threat moves on, normal functions and processes are resumed.

The nearest widely known capability in businesses that I have seen is that of having a crisis strategy and communications plan so that when, for example, there is a cyber security breach a company can start managing the risk to its brand immediately. But this is more of a specialised, single point response rather than a ‘whole body’ response.

And disaster recovery / business continuity plans are just that – responses to planned events.

I’m suggesting an attribute of a business reflex is that it deals with unplanned events, it happens automatically, cognitive analysis and planning are suspended while the ‘whole body’ deals with the emergency.

Who does this well today? The military must. And I have seen something like this at scale in one organisation. But I don’t think it is widespread.

So, how does a business cultivate business reflexes?

I will go into this more in a future blog but it’s more than just training a few staff in key posts. A ‘whole body’ response requires some automation of processes and the decision-making framework.

Key point: In a business environment with low levels of certainty – forget planning and develop business reflexes.

Link to cover picture

Link to a much less boring and amazingly beautiful sunset.

Busy days


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