Our Clients

Process Improvement Advice & Best Practices


Maintaining Business Continuity in Crisis – COVID-19

Author: Paul Dean, NOVACES (Washington, D.C.)

Amidst the uncertainty of the current environment, the currency of information expires within a few short weeks, sometimes merely within days.  Indeed, the global outlook in February 2020 is entirely alien in the context of what we now know two months later.  However volatile our predicament may seem though, two things are certain: the pandemic of COVID-19 will ultimately end, and another pandemic looms on the horizon.  While it is exceedingly difficult to consider returning to the status quo, it is imperative that leadership aligns business objectives with that inevitability in mind.  Whether the crisis subsides in six weeks or six months, the organizations that can maintain continuity in their operations will emerge leaps and bounds ahead of their peers when the dust settles.

A calamity of this scale is unprecedented in our lifetime, so it is of little wonder that organizations are channeling the entirety of their resources towards combating the issue.  In fact, the gravity of the situation almost necessitates this colossal response.  However, many institutions are failing to consider the trade-offs of this all-in approach.  The intent of this paper is to shed light on these concerns in the hope that leaders will evaluate the true opportunity costs at stake and calibrate a more measured response.  The ideal end state is to achieve impactful contributions at the current worldwide forefront while simultaneously accomplishing most business objectives that existed prior to the crisis.  There are numerous paths to attaining this end, but each response will require a certain measure of the following key tactics: reallocation of human capital, focused process improvement, and strategic emphasis.

Reallocation of Human Capital.  A catastrophic event has the potential to shake the foundation of an organization’s strategic vision, and talent management is typically the first casualty.  As Von Molke’s timeless insight goes, “no plan survives first contact”, and leaders’ first impulse in dire circumstances is to forgo previously assigned roles and responsibilities.  In doing so, they immediately redirect most of their assets to address the issue at hand.  Although this may be the best tactic for weathering the adverse effects of the predicament, it will not age well.  If management dedicates an overabundance of human capital to the principal problem, they will neglect to realize the gains from their routine business operations.  A rudimentary example will illustrate this further.

In a hypothetical scenario, an organization has ten lines of effort.  Each line of effort conveniently utilizes ten percent of the overall manpower.  Further, the program management office has rank ordered each of the groups by strategic importance from one to ten.  In the event of a disaster, senior management decides that they will re-purpose personnel from the bottom five lines of effort to their new crisis management response team.  While they will still reap the rewards of five of their original objectives and mitigate the crisis, they are absorbing an enormous opportunity cost by indefinitely forestalling the other five objectives.  An alternative and far more efficacious approach is to sub divide the workload of the degraded lines of effort among the team members of the remaining five groups.  Figure 1 captures the benefits of optimizing human capital:


Figure 1.

Although it seems untenable to suddenly modify the workload of a small portion of employees, properly assessing the available human capital will show that there are individuals who are up to the task.  To be clear, the untimely upheaval in company structure will still diminish business objectives, but having a dedicated team maintaining forward progress outside the scope of the crisis will ensure the continued delivery of value to the organization.  Notwithstanding, maintaining business continuity with severely constrained resources will require the innovative tools of focused process improvement.

Focused Process Improvement.  If rearrangement of the manpower inventory is the catalyst for achieving business continuity, then harnessing process improvement tools is the fuel that keeps the initiatives in motion.  Unfortunately, channeling resources to alleviate crisis magnifies the effects of the triple constraints on enduring efforts.  Inadequate resourcing, condensed timelines, and reduced scope all threaten to test the limits of the team, so innovative approaches are vital.  Leaders must empower their subordinates by deferring to their expertise and affording them the latitude to accomplish tasks via unconventional approaches.  With newfound influence, the team will be able to rapidly identify various inefficiencies and defects in the organization’s processes.  Often it takes extraordinary and challenging circumstances to identify issues that would never be addressed under the status quo.  Identifying problems is only half the battle though.  Failing to conduct analysis and provide a viable solution can simply exacerbate the issue.  Hence, focused process improvement is an invaluable asset that will help frame the problem and keep the team fixated on improvement.  An example of an all too common bureaucratic procedure will exemplify this.

Using the same theoretical company in the previous example, the business continuity team quickly realizes that there are significant procedural hurdles when moving projects through the project life cycle.  Mandatory phase gate meetings, progress reviews, and numerous stakeholder updates overburden the team’s capacity.  Furthermore, each of these engagements requires follow-up documentation that gets routed for signature approval through several departments.  The team decides to focus solely on this governance aspect of the lifecycle process and determines that they can reduce the number of touch points by 75 percent.  These measures alleviate the already constrained continuity team’s responsibilities and allow them to devote more of their time to advancing the timely completion of deliverables.

In unprecedented times, the amplification of constraints calls for both inventive allocation of talent and the application of process improvement to continue impacting the bottom line.  However, these tactics are not fruitful if the organization lacks the proper vision.

Strategic Emphasis.  The utility of creative solutions is meaningless if leaders do not support it.  Although the world has turned its attention exclusively towards the crisis, the onus is on management to keep delivering value while concurrently averting the fallout of the pandemic.  The shadow of disaster shrouds mundane operations from view, but a failure to sustain continuity will incur a hefty cost when normality returns.  The leaders who understand the criticality of these costs will divide their talent pool in a way that does not bring standard operations to a grinding halt.  They will vest their teams with the proper tools and message the strategic importance of bringing those tools to bear.  Ultimately, this top-level emphasis is a transparent way to show that leaders acknowledge the gravity of the current environment yet have the foresight to anticipate the future that lies ahead.

Although all eyes are now on the pandemic, there will come a time when they revert to steady state operations.  When that time comes, those who took the twofold approach towards maintaining business continuity and confronting COVID-19 will emerge in far greater standing.  Rather than spend months or even years picking up the pieces in the aftermath, the organizations that practiced resiliency and portrayed adaptability will be paragons for future success when the next catastrophe strikes.

Leave a Comment

All comments are moderated and you may experience a delay before yours appears in the queue. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments at our discretion.

Contact Us

security code

Follow Us: