How to Gain Business Agility in Uncertain Times

It’s unclear how long the COVID-19 pandemic will impact businesses and the economy. Learn three critical planning processes finance teams should deploy to help their companies succeed during times of uncertainty.

Kshitij Dayal April 15, 2020
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While COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy, it’s also having an unprecedented impact on businesses worldwide. We’ve heard from many of our customers about what they’re doing to weather this storm. One thing we’re hearing again and again is the importance of agility and resilience.

Even under more normal circumstances, agility is a defining characteristic of businesses that can better anticipate what’s coming, act quickly when faced with change, and more decisively respond to the demands of customers, market shifts, and competitive threats. Now, agility has emerged as the essential defining attribute of organizations able to respond to this crisis and chart a new, resilient course for the future. Put another way, organizations that operate with agility are better suited to get through this pandemic and its impacts.

We know businesses everywhere are doing their best to operate under these historically extreme conditions. It doesn’t help that most of them weren’t equipped for what we are now facing, particularly when it comes to how they plan for what’s to come. In fact, three out of four finance executives admit their planning processes simply have not prepared them for economic and geopolitical disruption of any kind, let alone the withering impacts of a global pandemic.

We’re seeing agility in action among our own customers. From March 23 to 27, our cloud planning platform processed up to 30 times more forecasts and build-out scenarios than in a typical week. Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen an overall average increase of 15 times the amount of modeling and recalibrating as organizations everywhere attempt to make sense of the ripple effects this global phenomenon could have on their business.

Amid Disruption, Finance Emerges as a Leader

As these finance leaders have learned, agility starts with planning. This is true when the world isn’t in crisis, but it’s even more vital for organizations hoping to steady themselves now. And we’re seeing now how an intensely digital, increasingly global business environment can turn a traditional, static annual planning process into a potentially devastating competitive disadvantage.

It’s not all bad news. This moment is also showing us how finance organizations of all kinds are realizing they hold the keys to agility for the entire business.

Why?

Finance is where all financial and operational data naturally resides. Because it touches every aspect of a business, finance also drives the budgeting and forecasting activities that essentially create the roadmap of that business. In this role, the finance team defines the processes for planning and manages the key tools of agility: scenario planning, continuous planning, and rolling forecasts.

Here are three key planning processes that finance can implement to support businesses agility during times of uncertainty.

Scenario Planning

Think of scenario planning as harnessing the power of “what if.” With a planning platform, you can model multiple scenarios based on everything from competitive threats and supply chain interruption to natural disasters, war, and pandemics.

Businesses today can use this powerful capability to anticipate the impacts if current disruption lasts 30, 60, or 90 days or longer. What if we can’t get parts for 60 days? What if 90% of our workforce needs to work from home? What if one of our fabrication plants goes down?

Modeling different potential futures pays off. Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station, has noted that to safely survive long periods in space, the mission team devoted endless hours to identifying and modeling various scenarios. So when the air-making equipment on the space station failed, the crew was prepared.

Not every scenario is quite so critical. But for businesses, the ability to plan for even unlikely scenarios—perhaps not for an entire pandemic, but for how disruptions in supply chains or workforce shifts can impact revenues and operations—could prove existential.

Continuous Planning

In a volatile marketplace, few things are more important to business agility than a plan that’s relevant to what’s happening now. Static annual plans, often of limited value as the quarters pass, offer little help in the face of a “black swan” event that blindsides markets and disrupts wide swaths of daily life.

The antidote to episodic planning is continuous planning. This ongoing approach automates the manual, menial processes that once led to the average annual budget taking 77 days to prepare. Even data integration with ERP, HCM, and other enterprise systems becomes seamless and automatic. This spares finance professionals and business users from wasting valuable time and risking costly errors by re-keying data.

And with faster planning cycles come budgets that adjust with the shifts and changes of the business and the marketplace. In a continuous, active planning environment, the budget isn’t frozen—and it’s never obsolete.

In fact, companies that implement continuous planning are 1.5 times more likely to be able to reforecast within just one week, and four times more likely to respond quickly to market change.

Rolling Forecasts

The business case for rolling forecasts can probably be summed up in two words: “Things change.” 

So it’s hard to imagine waiting around for the next budget period to pivot. Rolling forecasts offer a way to course-correct quickly, with enough insight and confidence to make critical decisions on a deadline. Rolling forecasts are unique in several ways. They:

  • Are modeled on drivers, not details. This is a more strategic way to approach forecasts, because the drivers can largely remain intact as shifts occur, even if specific details change.

  • Usually forecast four to eight quarters in the future. By providing a continuous forecast over a specific time horizon, actuals move forward each month on a rolling basis, making it easier for decision-makers to see what’s happening in real time.

  • Have consistent horizons. Unlike quarterly reforecasts, which shorten as you approach the one-year horizon, rolling forecast horizons stay constant.

  • Inform better business decisions. This is especially true when incorporating nonfinance data like labor costs, staffing pipeline, and sales attrition rates. In fact, FSN research found that senior executives who make better use of nonfinancial data are more than twice as likely to be able to forecast beyond a 12-month horizon.

There’s a Plan for That

Most problems, even most crises, are not unique. We have seen them before, and forward-looking organizations will have likely sketched out some response that aims to keep them competitive in the face of change.

But organizations that operate with agility can rigorously explore a range of possible scenarios in a timely manner—even, sometimes, those that seem remote or impossible. Solutions that let businesses plan continuously, forecast constantly, and model virtually anything will become increasingly critical in a time of escalating uncertainty.

Because now more than ever, agility is the safest harbor of all.

Don’t miss this important webinar on April 22, “Reforecasting in Uncertain Times.”

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