In today's shifting business environment, agility and flexibility are key. So how can business leaders design a blueprint for success when the economic winds may shift? What kind of disciplined strategic thinking can prepare leaders to make fast decisions throughout the year? In this Expert Roundtable, three of BTG's independent executives share advice on successful strategy and execution amid today's uncertainty.
Meet Our Experts
Commercial strategy and operations executive
Commercial strategist and diligence expert for life science, biotechnology, diagnostics and healthcare focused private equity firms
Executive advisor on digital transformation, AI, and cybersecurity
Q: How do you think planning is and should be different in today’s environment of high uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic and related economic challenges?
John Parkinson: Agility is going to be key—but without losing sight of longer-term goals. Every plan should have appropriate “telemetry” built in that would allow a change of direction or pace. Think about investing in additional market and customer research to better sense market trends or shifts.
Freda Nassif: While the pandemic has presented its fair share of uncertainty, I'm a firm believer that a goal without a plan is just a dream. A pandemic that will negatively impact profit margins or an unforeseen opportunity that can maximize revenue further demonstrates the importance of pre-planning and incorporating “risks and opps” into the plan. It may not be perfect, but having a blueprint that puts you back on a path to performance can be the difference between good and great.
David Davidovic: In some ways, the planning process should continue to be faithful to good disciplined strategic thinking that focuses on insights, makes sound strategic choices, and ensures excellent execution. However, all this needs to happen in a faster and more nimble way (notice that I deliberately did not say “agile” as this is not about methodology but mindset) that allows for fast responses and adjustments as conditions change and opportunities arise. The process steps may be the same, but the approaches and filters applied to each may be different.
“ It may not be perfect, but having a blueprint that puts you back on a path to performance can be the difference between good and great. ”
— Freda Nassif
Q: What new elements or processes should be involved?
David Davidovic: The same elements more forward-thinking companies have been working with; however, with greater commitment and investment—as opposed to the tentative “pilotitis” of the last 10 years. These elements are dynamic marketing, truly orchestrated multi-channel execution, and speedy decision-making. Most importantly, this means becoming very comfortable making decisions with incomplete and ambiguous insights.
Freda Nassif: Incorporate “worst first” into the plan. Conduct a half-day meeting dedicated to mapping out the worst-case scenarios and plot out if-then contingencies, to be prepared in the event the team is faced with these challenges. Based on my experience, people who plan to fail never do.
John Parkinson: We have seen elevated interest in “what can kill us?” research and modeling:
- Where are our blind spots and what can we do about them?
- How can we keep up with technology?
- What are we missing?
More focus on people—HR needs to up its game on every process from onboarding to monitoring performance against additional criteria. Employees are stressed in many new ways. Business leaders are asking questions like:
- How well does HR design and deliver the appropriate interventions?
- How do I manage my business when we never meet face to face?
- Should I expect to get back to normal (whatever that is), or should I look for a new operational model?
Q: What tips would you offer executives who must execute against 2021 goals in this environment?
John Parkinson: Focus on customers, culture, and the data that illuminates what’s going on outside and inside your organization. Tech is going to be a bigger piece of every business going forward. Do you have the right resources and leadership at every level, and if not, where can you go for objective advice?
Freda Nassif: Incorporate mindfulness into your objectives. I recently completed a mindfulness and optimal performance course and I have to say, it has been instrumental to my focus and ability to lead through uncertainty. As an independent, uncertainty is real, and staying present or taking 3-minute mindfulness breaks has created a calm yet confident aura within me. In addition, it has empowered me to trade my ego at the door for vulnerability, and that has definitely served me well.
David Davidovic: Executives probably have the hardest time managing in this environment. A virtual and fast-moving environment like the one we are in brings many challenges to those who are used to overseeing the details and making decisions at every single stage. These conditions require greater trust in teams, which in practice means granting a lot more accountability, freedom of movement, and flexible resourcing.
The reality is that much of what we used to do and how we did it pre-pandemic was not very efficient and, frankly, not very effective. New ways of working, albeit forced, may be the best thing that happened to business.
Q: Many businesses have undertaken more scenario planning this year than ever. What are the keys to success in managing against multiple scenarios?
David Davidovic: Good scenario planning comes down to carefully listing and documenting the key assumptions for each scenario. Then whenever any conditions point to a change in any assumption, the scenario can be quickly updated to understand the impact of the change. This requires a highly disciplined approach, but it works.
Freda Nassif: Scenario planning provides you with a pulse on various trade-offs that may need to be considered in a real-world setting. Based on my experience, the keys to success are objectively vetting through all scenarios with an open, unbiased, collaborative approach. Doing so will cultivate confidence in deploying a plan that was thoughtfully fleshed out.
John Parkinson: Scenarios are important in understanding possible future directions and opportunities, but too many scenarios can detract from decision making. In the end you can (in general) only pick one path. As long as that one path is effectively instrumented to deliver you the data you need for management and decisioning, you should be able to navigate uncertainty.
Q: What lessons do you think executives have learned from 2020 that might be helpful for strategy and planning work in 2021?
Freda Nassif: One of the best yet simple lessons I’ve learned is Don’t get furious, get CURIOUS. I often pause during moments of frustration and ask myself, “How can I be of service or make a contribution during this difficult period?”—flipping the trauma into a purpose.
John Parkinson: Black Swans happen. Agility is critical; technology can enable many things (and should where it can), but agile people are the most important resources. I also think that there will need to be a new focus on the ethics of business. This goes beyond the current “ESG” rhetoric. How do we build a business model and culture that balances outcomes for all constituencies for a better society? There are untapped pools of capability in the economy. How can we tap into these?
David Davidovic: The more effective and successful executives are actually learning, adjusting, and asking themselves what new ways of working can be carried forward into the future for long-term effect. Others are stuck in the past, waiting and hoping for things to return to the old normal. You can probably tell which I think will be more successful for companies and for individuals.
“ The reality is that much of what we used to do and how we did it pre-pandemic was not very efficient and, frankly, not very effective. New ways of working, albeit forced, may be the best thing that happened to business. ”
— David Davidovic
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