Raising fences, building resilience
In Nan Shepherd’s first novel The Quarry Wood, we are introduced in the opening sentence to Josephine Leggatt, formidable aunt to the book’s heroine, Martha Ironside.
One of Josephine’s catchphrases, uttered with the same regularity that other people remark upon the weather, is “we’ll need to put a fencie up,” on account of the chickens that peck incessantly at her seedlings.
“Josephine’ll mebbe hae her fencie ready for her funeral,” Martha’s uncle observes wryly in response, reflecting the lack of any action to match the intent in Josephine’s words. Shepherd explains Josephine’s attitude thus:
The fence was not neglected from carelessness, or procrastination, or a distaste for work. Still less, of course, from indifference. Miss Leggatt had a tender concern for her seedlings, and would interrupt a game of cards at the advent of a scraping hen. But deep within herself she felt obscurely the contrast between the lifeless propriety of a fence and the lively interest of shooing a hen; and Aunt Josephine at every turn chose instinctively the way of life.
Inaction, carelessness and procrastination are inherently human afflictions, but businesses and other organisations do not have the luxury of indulging such traits. In a complex and volatile world, companies must always seek solace in the lifeless propriety of a fence.
Contingency planning – the careful consideration of mitigating actions available before adversity strikes – is a crucial planning process for any prudent business. According to recent research by Edelman, the public believes it is one of the most important actions employers in the UK should take in response to the coronavirus outbreak. For European firms, that process is layered on top of the thinking, preparations, and scenario planning that were already underway in response to a Brexit process that remains rife with uncertainty and unknown ramifications.
Failing to plan for future shocks to our way of life and business is no longer an option, but neither should it be a half-hearted exercise in satisfying internal auditors. Contingency planning is a necessary measure in building resilience into an organisation, with research by Cranfield having shown that resilient companies also have better reputations, loyal staff and suppliers, good customer relations, and are generally more successful and profitable than their peers.
The ability to anticipate problems before they have occurred, and to prepare your organisation to withstand setbacks and crises, goes well beyond documenting a list of potential risks. It requires teams to engage with each other honestly, to admit and accept vulnerabilities, to think creatively, lean on their values, and to be willing to learn from their mistakes.
Significant time and effort will have to be invested in contingency planning, rehearsal and resilience. There are attitudinal and financial hurdles for institutions to overcome in planning for – and investing in – scenarios that may, after all, never happen.
We should be careful, here, to separate successful pre-crisis contingency planning from successful crisis management. While closely related, they are also discrete and the former does not, unfortunately, guarantee the latter. Conversely, some organisations have handled severe crises remarkably well, despite having had weak or non-existent contingency planning in place. Ask yourself, though, do you really need the stress and distraction of scattering away several troublesome hens, when a fence would have saved you the bother?
Contingency planning will look and feel different from one organisation to the next, as each has its own unique combination of drivers, values, personalities, scale, and obligations. For that reason, we have gathered in this document some general principles we think are applicable to most organisations, to inform your approach, prompt a debate, or spark new ideas.
Benjamin Franklin’s now timeworn aphorism that “by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail” is almost meaningless, the phrase so trodden and compacted with lazy repetition. But it reminds us of something that is easy to forget when planning for the future: that is, the risk of not doing so.
Resilient companies take positive action to ensure they are equipped to deal with challenging times. Desperately chasing off threats as they materialise is for the birds, and the eccentric fictional aunties trying to shoo them away.
Written by David Gaffney, Partner
2 June 2020