Business planning – up in the clouds or down to earth……?

The two major news items of the moment, Nick Clegg’s apparent triumph in the televised election debate and the volcanic cloud that is currently playing havoc with the skies have brought to mind Harold MacMillan’s alleged quote when asked what was most likely to blow a government off course.

The source of the ex Conservative prime minister’s comment “events dear boy, events” has never been properly substantiated, but nonetheless, it is probably haunting his would be successors now, as all their months of meticulous election planning have had to be put to one side, to deal with these two unexpected events.

Many businesses, not least those involved in air travel, are also having to come to terms with the impact of the Icelandic eruption, which threatens to wreak more havoc on the UK economy than the collapse of the Icelandic banking system. Whether it is key employees being stranded, or the disruption of key transport connections, or the impact on customers and suppliers, companies are having to find solutions to the problems that have emerged.

It is moments like this where the merits of business planning tend to be questioned. “How can you plan for this?” is a common jibe, dug up whenever somebody has the temerity to suggest that their organisation might need some sort of business plan. A lot of this stems from the corporate or government approach to planning, which in many organisations means a political exercise designed to promote or preserve the position of senior executives or civil servants.

The reality is that planning is not just about plotting a single course. It is about preparing for the unexpected. It is about creating a culture within which uncertainty can be recognised and dealt with. Above all it is about producing a framework within which quick decisions can be made to deal with a range of scenarios.

Businesses with robust planning processes will have already started to look at the risks and opportunities that the current situation presents. They will be aware of the resources that they have available to manage these, and will be working out how to deploy them to maximum advantage. In short they will be much better prepared and much more able to survive than businesses that don’t have such processes.

As for the politicians…..

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