Why Were You Unprepared? How Not to Get Caught Out Again

Companies in every industry have been caught with their trousers down by Covid-19, highlighting a severe lack of pandemic preparedness in the global supply chain. Whilst questions have been raised as to the extent of financial cut backs, redundancies and new directions for big players, very little focus seems to have been placed on safeguarding against future incidents. Even in the late 2000s in a post SARS climate, there were claims that companies were starting to ‘recognize…the increasing need to anticipate crises and develop robust contingency plans’[1] (Rigby and Bilodeau, 2007) and show an ‘awareness about supply chain vulnerability as well as pandemic-related…issues’[2] (Abercrombie, 2007). That clearly wasn’t the case. Whilst the idea of eradicating the possibility of future global disasters may be a pipe dream, one could argue that companies are well past due for learning their lesson on pandemic planning. How then can companies prepare themselves for the next crisis?

The first port of call is to make pandemic planning ‘a C-suite priority’[3] to ‘ensure business continuity in a pandemic or any disaster’[4] (Abercrombie, 2007). In a recent publication, Deloitte espoused that a ‘minimum framework’[5] in creating an effective preparedness plan should relate ‘crisis indicators, crisis classification, crisis management team configuration and communication channels’[6] (Ionescu, Constantinescu, Anton, 2020). In laymen’s terms, these ideas entail:

· How you spot a crisis in the early stages so you can be proactive rather than reactive to key events.

· How you treat the crisis and which initial response(s) you employ – i.e. is it more an oxymoronic small crisis or an all-hands-on-deck, the-sky-is-falling scenario? How do you react to each?

· Who steps up to lead the company’s pandemic defence and how this performance will be evaluated and adapted as the situation unfolds.

· How you maintain relationships with customers, staff and the wider public.

A more robust crisis plan should also include some evaluation with regard to the accessibility of your product for your customers. Using the New Zealand lockdown measures as an example: McDonald’s was able to thrive under level three quarantine conditions because it had previously invested in digital and off-site strategies such as contactless payment systems and a collaboration with Uber Eats to deliver their products. This meant they were able to provide products to their customers despite heavy lockdown restrictions. In comparison, restaurants that lacked such accessibility were not able to capitalise on the step down from level four quarantine measures in the same way and were faced with greater pressure from a lack of preparedness.

Creating greater accessibility to your products in a time of crisis, however, is not just about scooping up your usual niche audience. A recent article by Forbes highlights that ‘prior to this crisis, most businesses aimed their digital initiatives at a target audience…they wanted to attract and retain’[7], but that companies didn’t account for ‘marginalized groups who were previously not digital-first, such as seniors and those with limited access to the internet’[8] (Ufford, 2020). By creating an accessible user experience which works for as many customers as possible – especially in an ever-growing digital marketplace – you create a greater viability for your product and can help to safeguard your company’s foothold in a crisis.

Your crisis and pandemic planning shouldn’t just stretch to your own company’s response though as there may not be just you in your product’s supply chain. An excellent example of being aware of the interconnected nature of their business’s ecosystem is Chinese electric car manufacturer WM Motor. In the early stages of Covid-19, they identified the devastating effects the virus could have on their product’s supply chain and ‘increased payments to many of their 3000 suppliers, so that suppliers, too, would survive and be available’[9] (Kanter, 2020). By doing such, and with a bit of luck, the car maker should secure their future in a post Covid-19 world.

One idea for building stability into your supply chain could be ‘incorporating pandemic response into contractual agreements with vendors’[10] (Abercrombie, 2007). By ‘encourag[ing] ongoing dialogue on current-state readiness’[11] (Ionescu, Constantinescu, Anton, 2020), companies can ensure their market foothold doesn’t crumble due to the mismanagement and unpreparedness of other institutions.

With all of these enclosed ideas, and with other lessons to be learned from previous crises, is it likely that there will be a global shift in consciousness towards greater pandemic planning? The unfortunate answer is no. Covid-19 is nowhere near the first global disaster, yet look at how prepared companies were for this pandemic. Our hope, however, is that by highlighting useful lessons that studious senior executives and future leaders can take on board, we will be able to help them in avoiding similar mistakes in tackling global challenges in the future.


[1] Rigby and Bilodeau, A Growing Focus on Preparedness, hbr.org, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2007).

[2] George Abercrombie, Who’s Your Weak Link?, hbr.org, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2007).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Andrei Ionescu, Claudiu Constantinescu, Raluca Anton, 11 Practical Steps for Pandemic Preparedness, deloitte.com, (London: Deloitte, 2020).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stephen Ufford, Digital Preparedness in a Crisis, forbes.com, (New York: Forbes Media, 2020). [8] Ibid.

[9] Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Leading Your Team Past the Peak of a Crisis, hbr.org, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2020). [10] George Abercrombie, Who’s Your Weak Link?, hbr.org, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2007).

[11] Andrei Ionescu, Claudiu Constantinescu, Raluca Anton, 11 Practical Steps for Pandemic Preparedness, deloitte.com, (London: Deloitte, 2020).