Building flexibility into your strategic plans

NOTE: this was written with PhD students in mind but is relevant for any of us whose projects will be disrupted by COVID-19 

There is so much uncertainty associated with the spread of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions in the UK, but also restrictions in countries where you might be doing fieldwork, that it can feel impossible to know how to progress your PhD project.  Methods for decision making under deep uncertainty (DMDU) are usually applied when planning major investments, like large infrastructure projects, but some of their core ideas could be useful for strategic planning in very uncertain circumstances like this. The driving principle of DMDU is to let go of finding the ‘right’ solution/decision. Instead, focus on finding a series of activities that move you towards where you need to go but provide the flexibility to change with the least effort/cost if circumstances change.

Some overarching steps that might help apply the more detailed principles to the challenges you are facing:

1. Work out where you want/need to get to – what is the overall aim for your project after COVID-19 and/or what does the best possible situation in the interim look like. What are the specific objectives of this aim?

You will already have set out the aims and objectives for your research but now is a good time to go back to them and really reflect on what they mean to you and which might be most important or which are negotiable. Remember to keep reviewing this as you go along – it might change as you find out more about the available options or as external circumstances change.

2. What are the key constraints or uncertainties that might affect your ability to achieve your objectives?

Examples of constraints might be the need to access a particular country/case study or the need to use a particular research approach/theoretical framework. Uncertainties might be whether you can travel to a particular country, whether participants would be willing to engage even if travel was allowed etc. Again, your constraints and uncertainties might change so keep reviewing these.

3. What options do you have available to you to achieve your aim? To what extent to they meet the objectives you have and how are they affected by the constraints and uncertainties you have?

Try to identify a series of different options available to you. This might mean;

  • changing the data collection process for example, by having a shorter experiment or fitting focus groups and interviews into a shorter period of time;
  • collecting data in a different way (for example interviews or focus groups remotely instead of in person); collecting different data (for example,
  • interviewing people about a topic, rather than conducting an experiment/focus group;
  • using secondary data.

Think about the extent to which they allow you to meet your objectives. This will help you prioritise options but it might mean you need to think about new objectives for some options.

How do the uncertainties around the UK and/or the country you are doing fieldwork affect your options? For example, secondary data analysis will not be vulnerable to uncertainties about travel restrictions, but face-to-face focus groups will be.

How do the options link together and what effort/cost is involved in moving between them, for example, if you start with A, can you easily move to B?

Think about all the activities involved in these different options and plot them out over time. Try to identify common preparatory activities across all of your options (like a literature review paper or an interview protocol) that you can start in the short-term while keeping your options open.

With all the options, work out how you would move between them and what you could do to make moving between options more effective. For example; could you start with remote interviews then add in experiments if conditions change? How might you conduct the interviews in a way they made sense if you moved to a different approach? You may need to discount any options that represent a one-way street, where you invest a lot of effort in setting them up but would have to duplicate that effort if you changed to a different option.

How will you know when to change between options as external circumstances change?

Think about the timing of when you need to write-off particular options – for example, if it takes six months to design, recruit, run and analyse a focus group and you had to have all data analysed by December 2020, you would need to decide to proceed with this option by the end of June 2020. If you aren’t able to proceed at that point, you will not be able to complete that option.

Try to identify these tipping points for all options so you know when you have to make a decision – some options may have earlier tipping points than others. As you approach tipping points (or more regularly, because who isn’t watching the news every day) review key uncertainties, like travel restrictions or the likelihood of stakeholder engagement, and determine whether options are still viable. Once you pass a tipping point, you will need to write off that option and change to another option. When this happens, review remaining options and identify the best balance between their ability to achieve objectives and their vulnerability to uncertainties. This may require a re-think of objectives.

 Remember that all of these things might change – your aim/objectives, your constraints, key uncertainties and your options so book in time to review and revise regularly.

I you think DMDU approaches might help you with projects but you need more detail that this, let me know and I’ll send you some more detailed papers.

Good luck!