Contingency planning: 4 steps to prepare for the unexpected

April 14, 2022 - 9 min read

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What is contingency planning?

Why is contingency planning important?

4 steps to develop a contingency plan

Most days at work are business as usual — you hope. Unfortunately, there are also days where nothing seems to go right. Sometimes, these hiccups are just part of running an organization. And some days, they can be a major disruption in your work.

Because your clients and customers are relying on you to deliver as promised, it’s critical that you have a backup plan in place. There’s no way to prevent all mishaps from occurring, but you can minimize their impact with a little strategic planning.

Rather than waiting for the worst-case scenario to play out, companies — and individuals — can put together a contingency plan. This helps to ensure that normal business operations continue as smoothly as possible.

Learn what a business contingency plan is, why you should have one, and how to start planning in this article.

What is contingency planning?

Contingency planning is a part of a business’ risk management strategy. It’s how companies foresee potential disruptions to the business. 

While traditionally, contingency planning have been an area of focus for managers and organizations, there are many benefits for individuals as well.

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Why is contingency planning important?

To understand contingency planning, it’s best to take a broad view. Sure, when companies have a crisis management plan in place, everyone sleeps a little better at night. It’s nice to know that you’ll know what to do if something happens.

But in life — as well as in business — the only real constant is change. As Tina Gupta, VP of Talent and Employee Experience at WarnerMedia puts it, “Change is not something to solve for.” Fear of change and uncertainty leads people to hide from it, interpreting every bit of rough air as a sign of an impending crash.

When you embrace a future-minded perspective, you no longer have to be afraid of uncertainty. Contingency planning becomes a strategy to be proactive instead of reactive. It’s an exercise in looking for ways to thrive instead of survive. 

BetterUp calls this type of person a future-minded leader. Rather than running from potential threats or pretending everything is fine, they cultivate an agile mindset. These people combine optimism, pragmatism, and the ability to envision the future (or, what positive psychologists call prospection).

Contingency planning example:

Let’s look at how WarnerMedia has been able to embrace contingency planning as a tool to build a psychologically safe environment.

Conducting a risk assessment

Before you can create a contingency plan, you need to identify the risks that may impact your business. The best way to do this is with the support of your team. Hold a brainstorming session where you can talk through recent experiences, upcoming initiatives, and common pitfalls.

This type of risk assessment can't protect you from being surprised. Tomorrow will hold unexpected events, many of which never happened before in your organization (months-long pandemic shutdowns anyone?) Instead think of this assessment as surfacing the things you can prepare for and opening up everyone's imagination to the range of possible obstacles and outcomes. This will prime the pump for awareness, a flexible mindset, and solution-seeking orientation.

Don’t make the mistake of limiting the meeting to just managers. Your entry-level employees and individual contributors will have a lot of insight as to what could happen — and how to handle it.

Companies often make strategic planning an annual event, but you should review your contingency plan more frequently. Risk assessment should ideally be a natural part of planning for every new initiative.

 

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4 steps to develop a contingency plan

Here are 4 steps to develop a contingency plan for your team:

1. Identify the triggers

What are the risks? The first step in contingency planning is knowing which scenarios you’re preparing for. It’s impossible to predict everything, but chances are you can think of one (or ten) worst-case scenarios that would throw operations off.

Put these scenarios in order of likelihood. The most probable and important ones will form the backbone of your contingency plan.

2. Examine the situation

In your hypothetical scenario, what would be the most likely course of action? Write that down, but be sure to ask: is it the best course of action? If your new plan is significantly different from what you’ve done before, you’ll want to talk it over with your leaders.

Get your team involved in this stage of the process. One of the benefits of planning in advance is that you have time to brainstorm responses. If the disruption has happened before, ask them what they did to resolve it and what they wish they had done differently.

3. Determine who needs to know

Once you’ve created a viable plan, determine who the stakeholders are. Identify who needs to know as soon as plans change and who will be responsible for kicking plan B into gear. If anyone needs to authorize purchases, provide access to resources, or otherwise support the plan, make sure that they know as well. 

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4. Practice

If you can, do a practice run of your disaster recovery plan. The specifics will vary depending on the “disaster,” but running through the plan is a useful exercise. It will help you spot areas that you might not be able to predict in advance.

For example, when the coronavirus pandemic sent millions of workers into lockdown, companies that already had remote work policies in place were in the ideal position for the change. Companies that relied on brick-and-mortar workplaces had to quickly develop strategies to ensure remote team members had the technology and support they needed to work from home for an extended period of time. 

How to maintain a contingency plan

In general, it’s a good idea to review your contingency plan on (at minimum) an annual basis. However, there may be other events that might trigger a review of your recovery strategies.

There are three main parts to your plan: the trigger (or unexpected event), the planned course of action, and the people involved. If any of these change, you’ll want to update your plan. 

For example, moving to a new system, platform, or workflow would cause a change in both your Plan As and Plan Bs. If you hire for a new role that sits between functions, that may change the people involved.

Final thoughts

Your business continuity plan isn’t just an exercise in preparedness. It’s an opportunity to help your teams learn how to become more agile and creative problem solvers.

Everyone, from a project management team developing a contingency plan for rolling out a new sales incentive, an IT team planning for a new system to go live, or a manager coaching an employee through creating a contingency plan for meeting work deadlines, needs to develop this skill. In a time of uncertainty and constant change, thinking through possible problems and alternatives in advance is part of life. 

Gupta of WarnerMedia says that empowering her team through coaching has helped them "move from overwhelm to thriving through change." When they trust themselves, the company, and the plan, employees become more confident. They’re more willing to take risks and trust each other.

When things go awry, your plan won’t just minimize the potential impact. It will empower your team to thrive in uncertainty as they respond to whatever gets thrown their way.

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Published April 14, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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