A recent Institute of Directors survey found that a third of businesses haven’t started planning for Brexit. A dangerous place to be, yet understandable. Brexit is a behemoth of a challenge, posing a question to boards they have rarely had to answer: how can our company plan for something that’s never happened before?
It forces people into an uncomfortable and unusual position – thinking the unthinkable. Not everyone can boast they have the skills to conceptualise what the future might look like. It takes nerve.
Start planning. Waiting for the final decisions is commercial suicide. It’s far better to have formulated an opinion of what good, ok and bad looks like for your organisation and manage the realities as they emerge, than have to catch up with your competitors.
This brings us to step two: assess your organisation’s skills. This sort of planning calls for an agile mind, one that can re-evaluate things regularly and deal with ambiguity. It’s therefore essential that you have the right leadership skills involved in the process.
Can your managers think differently, or will they need help to do so? Often a facilitator, from inside or outside the company, can help to draw out the scenarios and their consequences. Still that may not be enough. If your leaders prefer detail to concepts, give them a structure that unlocks creative thinking. Aside from the obvious brainstorming and lateral thinking, Edward de Bono’s ‘six thinking hats’ technique is helpful to turn to, as are simulated games, which provide a safe way to test ideas when applied to very specific scenarios.
The final attribute needed is an ability to turn the ideas into a plan. It’s a learned trait so you may need to recognise that while some people have great ideas, they can’t apply them to the real world. Find people who can.
A word of caution on skills: accountability is needed for the plan to run and evolve, but when things are likely to change you need a leader who oversees the process, brings people together, keeps the shared goal alive and will listen to others – perhaps even look outside the company to swipe ideas, but certainly not be a ball to kick.
Brexit is just too volatile to waste time on blame if things don’t work out. Instead, you need to ensure the leadership culture is one that is supportive and ensures everyone understands the plan and the values that underpin it. That’s very different from being able to recite the plan. If managers haven’t assimilated the fundamental framework then they have little chance of changing the plan on the hoof when the need arises.
Get over uncertainty. Getting down to the nuts and bolts of the plan will require everyone to accept that no one knows what will happen – even Whitehall. Planning in uncertain times will be easier if you identify the outcome you want and how you could get to it. That feels brave but actually it comes down to the skills we’ve discussed and supportive relationships – ultimately creating an office where it’s ok to say ‘what if?’. What if we closed that site? What if we can’t employ native Spanish speakers? What if the trade agreement changes?
It tells you that the people involved must also be comfortable working with proxy information. You will not have the facts for a long time. But if you know where you are, what you want to achieve, the important factors for success – not the detail, but the fundamental ingredients – and who is accountable, then you will formulate a plan that’s easy to review and communicate to others as the picture becomes clearer.
That’s crucial. Employees will look to leaders for answers. Management must be able to deliver a message that’s coherent for the circumstances of the day. And that tells you there’s one guiding principle to apply to all the planning for Brexit: the facts will change, but skills will always steady the ship.
Christine Elgood is managing director of Elgood Effective Learning