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Planning for the unplannable - how to master the ability to react to the unexpected

Written by Antony Lovell on Tuesday, 08 December 2020. Posted in Insight, Analysis

So much has been written about this year’s events that we’re now starting to get a backlash against certain terms due to their overuse. Unprecedented is one of those – it seems every second comment manages to fit it in somewhere.

Planning for the unplannable - how to master the ability to react to the unexpected

So much has been written about this year’s events that we’re now starting to get a backlash against certain terms due to their overuse. Unprecedented is one of those – it seems every second comment manages to fit it in somewhere. 

And yet, like any stereotype or cliché, there is a grain of truth in the word. Everything about 2020 has been unprecedented. Fights over toilet rolls, regular holiday destinations suddenly on international blacklists, fines for being outside your house – and that’s just what’s happening to individuals. As a whole, we are all having to adapt to the reality of a continual lifting and re-applying of lockdowns and restrictions globally, each having a varying degree of impact on different sectors. 

Then there’s the impact on what appeared to be immovable points in the calendar. Major events have changed beyond recognition – from going back to school, Halloween and no trick or treating, to Remembrance Day, moments we all took for granted are having to adapt to the current situation. Now we’re even battling to ensure Christmas isn’t cancelled. 

That’s if those events are staying still, of course. Just look at Amazon Prime Day. Introduced in 2015, since launch it had been a summer event to mark the retail giant’s birthday. In 2020, however, the day was pushed back to mid-October. In doing so, it completely upended every other retailer’s crucial peak season plans for the Black Friday to Christmas run. 

Planning for the unplannable

Quite simply, how on earth do you plan for any of it? There’s an argument that you can’t, and in fact shouldn’t, prepare for any of this because it is simply all so…unpredictable.

That doesn’t mean businesses should sit around on their laurels and wait to see what happens. It means that rather than spending time trying to guess the impact of this stream of disruption, the focus should be on acquiring, analysing and understanding external data, gaining insights, and reacting accordingly. 

So, for retailers, if data suggests that Prime Day led to discounts on a certain type of product, and this corresponds with a drop in interest in their own similar offerings, they need to react appropriately. 

Or if lockdowns result in smaller family Christmases, the need to tailor package appropriately – for example with smaller turkeys or smaller packs of food and drink. The same number of people need to eat; they just won’t be doing it in the same big groups that many of us are used to. 

Does this mean there’s actually an opportunity for increased sales? With the right network and agility, yes. But businesses need to be able to plan appropriately to achieve that. 

Doesn’t that contradict what was said earlier? In a way, yes, to a degree. But really it’s about a different type of planning, one that moves away from historical data and fixed plans to one that looks at the here and now. Planning that can bring together external and internal sources of information to provide intelligence for effective response through event and scenario modelling. 

The difference between events and scenarios – and why you need both

One way to look at it, is to see events and scenarios as the building blocks of planning. Events are things that could feasibly happen, both regularly, frequently or as one-offs. Examples could include another lockdown or shelter-in-place order, suppliers going out of business, depleted workforces due to an increase in infections locally or a sudden change in the weather. Of course, they aren’t all negative – they can include things like promotions or product launches, and peak season events (like Black Friday or Christmas). 

Scenarios are about modelling response options when events happen, either separately or together, and selecting the best course of action. 

Combining the two creates plans. However, in order for the plans to be fit for purpose in a continuously disrupted world, the blocks need to be constantly updated or deactivated as appropriate. It is only through doing this that businesses can create dynamic plans which can provide a basis for the company to operate from. 

Having the ability to react, whatever happens

As every week brings new challenges, businesses in many sectors need to introduce new approaches in order to cope with whatever comes their way. Dynamic event and scenario planning offers companies the structure they need to react to multiple, unprecedented and disruptive events, quickly and with confidence. If organisations incorporate these blocks into their operations, then they will be much better placed to thrive, irrespective of what happens in the coming months.

About the Author

Antony Lovell

Antony Lovell

Antony Lovell is a supply chain and planning expert. After completing his masters at Cranfield University alongside industry leading supply chain pioneers, he held roles at Sony and Innocent Drinks, delivering on successful supply chain agility and planning projects. He now leads Vuealta’s Supply Chain Planning Applications division, focused on building applications on the Anaplan platform that enable scenario driven S&OP for forward thinking organisations around the world.

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