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Turning Stress into Assurance: Continuity Planning During Times of Uncertainty

Continuity planning is one way to ensure your project stays on track by identifying areas of vulnerability and building contingency plans.

Closeup photo of a person's hand holding a pen and writing a checklist in a notebook

We’ve been immersed in a global pandemic for upwards of six months now,  spending weeks sheltered-in-place with limited in-person interaction. While change is a norm in today’s workplace, the global pandemic has layered on a new challenge of uncertainty. It’s caused an increase in fear, anxiety, and stress. For this unique moment of repose we are living in, continuity planning has never been more important.

At Palantir I developed a series of lightweight continuity planning exercises and a corresponding premortem risk workshop to help us navigate these challenging times. During the sessions, teams were empowered to identify areas where the projects they work on may experience risk, particularly if a teammate needs to be away from the office for an unanticipated, extended period of time. Teammates then evaluate the potential impact of disruptions to their projects, and note actions to be taken to protect its success. 

This method was designed to be proactive, sustainable, and client- and company-oriented. At the project level, I saw teammates' stress turned into assurance when they knew they could step away from the computer if they needed to without jeopardizing a project’s success. We were able to successfully build a mesh framework within our projects that reduced the risk that a project would be significantly impacted should one or more teammates need to step away from their computers.

Want to learn how we did this? Read on!

Framing continuity planning to teammates 

During heightened times of stress, continuity planning has the potential to add another layer of stress for teammates. Framing continuity planning in such a way that empowers teammates, and lifts them up to create effective plans in case they need to be out of the office, is critical. 

As I was bringing our teams through this exercise, I frequently reminded them (and myself) that this may be uncomfortable, but instead of becoming overwhelmed, congratulate yourself that you detected a few risks before they even arose! I used empathetic language to help teammates avoid getting frustrated or discouraged with the process, and also reassured them that any risk identified did not rest solely on their shoulders. We are all members of one team and we’ll get through this period together. 

Identifying points of risk 

Continuity planning at the project level begins by identifying areas of risk. Over the course of five days, teammates spend 5-15 minutes each day independently filling out a worksheet that maps dependencies.

On Day 1, teammates spend 5-10 minutes noting the activities and/or tasks that they perform regularly in their role on the project. They begin by thinking about the activities or tasks that they -- and solely they -- contribute towards or manage. The teammate answers the following questions for each activity or task they are working on:

  • Who are the coworkers that they interact with in the process of carrying out that task?
  • Is there a team member who authorizes the task?
  • Who might be blocked if the teammate is unable to perform the task?
  • Do you have documentation related to this task that can be referenced?

On Day 2, the focus shifts to systems and tools. Here, team members note in their worksheets:

  • The internal and external systems that they work with 
  • The teammates on the project that also know this system/tool 
  • The type of impact the tool has on their work 
  • Description of the impact 

On Day 3, teammates identify the ways they interact (whether one on one or in a team setting) with a client and/or project stakeholders. They consider all the most critical feedback loops with the client that they are part of and jot this down in their worksheet. Again, this should take about 10 minutes to do.

Day 4 is intended to serve as a 15-minute period of reflection and refining. The teammate reviews what they have so far and adds any information that may be missing. The last portion of the worksheet is filled out on Day 5. Teammates are asked to take a step back and reflect on the worksheets they filled out. They consider what stands out as a risk (however great or minimal) should they need to be out of the office for a few days to weeks. They are asked to think through questions like:

  • What could slow the team down or make the team miss a key milestone if you are out of the office?
  • What are you already nervous about?
  • Did you discover any blind spots when you reflected on your role in the project?

They list all the risks they can think of and do their best to note whether the level of impact is high, medium, or low. That wraps up the dependency mapping portion of the project continuity planning. 

Conducting a premortem assessment 

The second phase of continuity planning is to do a team premortem, where you review all the risks identified together and determine mitigation strategies. The premortem should be 50 minutes of uninterrupted (face to face or virtual call) time with all internal team members and stakeholders. I ask teammates to share their completed worksheets with me the morning before the premortem. As the facilitator and lead of the session, this gives me time to preprocess some of the risks and best prepare for the workshop. 

A premortem is a great way, at any time or phase of a project, to look ahead at the challenges that could cause a project to veer off course before they happen. It allows a team to create a proactive plan to navigate around the roadblocks and complexity they identify early. 

The premortem starts with each team member sharing their risks. Teammates are asked to share their screens and, at this point, no problem is off limits. Everyone is encouraged to share their risks and worries, no matter how big or small, across all areas of the project (because, remember, we’re all in this together!). During this time, I typically avoid solutioning, and focus on getting everything on the table. 

Next, teammates vote on the risks they’d like to devise mitigation strategies for, considering the ones that are show-stoppers, are likely to happen, and we have control over. I then guide teammates through creating a proactive solution for the risk or defining a backup plan. Action items noted and assigned with each risk. These action items and plans are revisited and checked in on often. To encourage an environment of transparency, openness, and support, risk mitigation plans for all projects should be shared at the company level.

Conclusion 

Continuity planning is one way to ensure your project stays on track by identifying areas of vulnerability and building contingency plans. Internally, continuity planning makes a team more resilient during times of disruption and provides teammates with the assurance that the project will continue if they need to step away. Through a series of lightweight, low level of effort exercises, teams can plan for the unexpected. 

Have you tried continuity planning at the project level? Have questions about dependency mapping or premortems? Feel free to reach out to us on Twitter @palantir.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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