What Is Contingency Planning? [+ Examples]

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Flori Needle
Flori Needle

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shown, more than ever, the importance of being prepared with a contingency plan for the unexpected, especially when it comes to business continuity.

business professional creating a business contingency plan

While some unexpected interruptions can be due to situations outside of your control, some issues arise that may be caused by internal errors. Unexpected problems can also be positive, like a sudden influx of interest in a new product.

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Regardless of the scenario, it's essential to prepare for everything, and contingency planning helps you do so. This post will explain what contingency planning is, outline the steps you can follow to create your own plan, and give examples that you can use for inspiration.

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Contingency Plan Definition

What is a contingency plan? Simply put, a contingency plan is an action plan designed to help organizations respond to a potential future incident. Think of it as a backup plan, or plan B to guide organizations through a worst-case scenario.

Contingency plans are helpful for all types of organizations, from businesses to non-profits, to government organizations. While these scenarios may never come to fruition, it’s important to have a plan in place so that your team isn’t panicking or scrambling to deal with an unfavorable event at the last minute.

These plans shouldn't focus solely on situations that may harm your business. For example, you may experience a significant increase in revenue during a specific period due to changes in market behavior. This is a good scenario, but you will still need to adapt your operations to scale and appropriately meet the new demands of your growing audience.

Contingency Planning vs. Crisis Management

Contingency planning is also different from crisis management, as it is not a reaction to something that has already happened but more so a plan for if and when something may happen. However, a contingency plan can help you with crisis management when issues arise.

Contingency Planning vs. Risk Management

Risk management is the identification, mitigation, and assessment of potential risks that may affect your organization. This process helps an organization prevent losses before they occur and aids in assessing whether or not certain risks are worth taking. Contingency planning can be a component of risk management since that process helps organizations survive these potential risks.

To ensure your business is prepared for everything, it's crucial to understand how to create a contingency plan.

What is a business contingency plan?

A business contingency plan is a strategy that outlines the steps your business’ teams will take in the event of a crisis occurring. It is essentially the backup plan that goes into action when the worst-case scenario occurs. The goal of your contingency plan is to help your business stay up and running after an issue arises.

Business Continuity Plan vs. Contingency Plan

Although their names vary by few letters, business continuity and contingency plans are different concepts. Continuity is the ability of your business to continue functioning after an incident that has disrupted operations occurs. A contingency plan is an action plan that goes into place if an incident were to happen.

Contingency plans can significantly impact whether your business can achieve continuity. Being able to react and take action during a crisis can dictate whether or not your business can emerge from the other side and continue normal business operations.

You can think of it like this: your continuity plans contain five sections: program administration, governance, business impact analysis, strategies and requirements, and training and testing. If your business also uses contingency plans, it could be part of the strategies and requirements section, which dictates how your business will respond to a crisis if it occurs.

To ensure your business is prepared for everything, it's crucial to understand how to create a contingency plan.

Contingency Planning: How to Make a Business Contingency Plan

Creating a contingency plan is responding to the question of "What if?"

What if your storefront floods? Or what if your supplier goes out of business? The responses to the what-ifs are contingency plans. These scenarios aren't necessarily going to happen, but if there is a possibility that they'll affect your business, you're prepared if they do.

Below we'll discuss the steps that go into contingency planning.

Contingency Planning in 7 Steps

1. Identify critical business functions.

This first step is the most important aspect of your planning, as it sets the tone for why your plans need to exist in the first place.

During this phase, identify all critical areas essential to keeping your business up and running every day. As these operations are imperative to success, you need to have plans to ensure that these operations continue, regardless of whatever scenarios arise.

You can think of it like this: these critical areas keep your business up and running on a day-to-day basis. Other areas are important, but these are the main functions that keep you afloat. Given this, you want to be prepared for anything and everything that may happen that can affect the critical areas, whether positive or negative. Contingency planning is exactly that.

Identifying these areas helps you move on to the next step as you begin brainstorming possible scenarios that can impact them.

2. Conduct a scenario assessment.

Once you've identified the critical operations of your business, you'll want to conduct a scenario assessment to identify situations that will affect these functions and put stress on your day-to-day operations.

For example, if your business operates out of a storefront, keeping your storefront up and running is a critical area of your business's success. Maybe you launch a new product that attracts more interest than you thought, and you need to deal with higher in-store traffic and a lack of products to satisfy the market. While it is a positive situation that will draw in more revenue, it can still have negative repercussions for your business if you don't deal with it when it happens.

You can think of this stage as similar to a risk assessment, but the possibilities are positive and negative. It may be helpful to meet with people who work in these critical areas and understand what they think may cause interruptions to their job duties and barriers to their success. Ask them how they feel situations will impact them and how they would deal with each scenario.

If you come up with a long list of threats, you can prioritize them based on their likelihood of occurring and how significant their impact would be on your business.

3. Create contingency plans for each scenario.

During this phase, you'll create contingency plans. Begin with the highest priority "threats," or those most likely to occur and most likely to cause significant stress to your business.

Outline the scenarios, people to inform, and the roles and responsibilities involved parties will have when they respond. We'll go over an example below, but a helpful template to follow can be:

  • Outlining the scenario,
  • Determine the probability of it occurring,
  • Explain how you'll prepare ahead of time,
  • Detail what the response will be if and when it happens.

Once you've created your plans, distribute them to key stakeholders in each scenario, so everyone understands what they are responsible for and can prepare ahead of time.

4. Get your plan approved.

Once you’ve come up with a desired plan of action, it’s time to get approval from stakeholders and management. If you’re creating both department-level and company-wide plans, this is especially important. Your plan won’t be a success unless there is buy-in from key members of your team and management. Once all parties agree that the course of action described in the contingency plan works for everyone, you can move forward with confidence.

5. Share the plan with your team.

Once your plan is approved, it’s time to distribute it. Putting it in a shared folder accessible to everyone creates transparency and makes it readily available if the time comes.

Make sure the parties involved know what they’re responsible for in the plan, that way you can execute the plan seamlessly should the worst-case scenario occur.

Once your plan is approved, it’s time to distribute it. Putting it in a shared folder accessible to everyone creates transparency and makes it readily available if the time comes.

Make sure the parties involved know what they’re responsible for in the plan, that way you can execute the plan seamlessly should the worst-case scenario occur.

6. Test your plans.

As with all plans, it's essential to continuously test (more on that in the next section) and update them over time. As businesses scale and change, your business needs will likely change, and specific scenarios will no longer have as significant of an impact. There may also be new scenarios to plan for that you hadn't anticipated or thought of when you were a smaller operation.

It can be helpful to create a timeline that you'll use to spend dedicated periods reviewing your plans, testing them, and communicating with the necessary stakeholders about any changes you've made to the plans.

7. Update your plan as needed.

Consider your contingency plan a work in progress. You’ll need to adapt it as new risks arise and to ensure it still makes sense for your business needs. Whenever a new manager or executive joins the team, be sure to share it with them as needed so they know what (if anything) is expected of them.

Contingency Planning Timeline

As planning is always an involved process, you may be wondering how much time you should devote to each step. Let's discuss a timeline below.

Week One: Identify Key Operations

Give yourself about a week to identify the operational areas essential for business function. You likely already know what these areas are, but you want to do enough research to identify them all.

Weeks Two & Three: Brainstorm Scenarios

Take two to three weeks to brainstorm the scenarios you're going to create plans for. Spend as much time as possible speaking to the necessary stakeholders to understand their ideas about the scenarios and how they'd like them dealt with. You'll want to conduct probability assessments and market research to understand if your competitors have ever dealt with something similar. You want to make sure you have all the necessary information before drafting your plan, so this step should be the longest.

Week Four: Draft Plan

Give yourself a week to draft your plans. The first two steps should give you all the information you need, so the third step is simply fine-tuning your research and creating the final plan. You can also share what you've created with your stakeholders and iterate on what you have based on their feedback.

The final step to creating your plan, maintaining and testing, is a continuous effort. As mentioned above, your business will likely be impacted by different things at different times, so it's always important to review plans and ensure they still relate to your needs. For example, maybe you plan to do quarterly reviews and training so new hires, and existing employees, are all on the same page.

Contingency Planning Example

business contingency plan steps

It may be helpful to have an example of a contingency plan, so we'll go over one below. The examples are of a positive and negative situation, so you can get a sense of how a plan applies to both.

Contingency plan example

Contingency Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Even with the best intentions, your contingency plan may get off to a rocky start. Here are some common mistakes to avoid when creating one of your own.

Not securing executive buy-in first.

Before you can get your team or department onboard, you must get buy-in from the executive team. Otherwise, you risk creating a doomed plan from the start.

Get their feedback on potential risks and other factors that may impact guidelines in the plan. Having executive support from the start ensures the plan put forth is approved and also can motivate those at the department level to buy-in as well.

Failure to cover multiple scenarios.

When assessing potential risks and scenarios, it’s important not to cut corners or slack. Scenario planning is key to your contingency plan’s success. All potential risks should be taken into account. You can rank them by likelihood, but you should by no means leave less likely events out. Otherwise, you leave yourself vulnerable should the event happen.

Think about how many businesses were affected by supply chain issues during the pandemic. Most probably never predicted such a catastrophe, but the ones that had a plan in place for such an obstacle were better prepared.

Set it and forget it.

It’s really easy to get comfortable once your contingency plan is in place — after all, if you did your due diligence from the start, you’re ready to tackle any obstacle thrown your way.

Unfortunately, it’s not a one-and-done process. A contingency plan should be looked at as a living document and updated as needed. Your business needs will change over time and so will its obstacles and risks.

Create Business Contingency Plan

All in all, contingency plans help you prepare for a host of what-if scenarios, whether they happen or not. As you never want to be caught in a challenging situation, being prepared is the best thing you can do to ensure your business continues to succeed, regardless of whatever happens along the way.

As the saying goes, better safe than sorry.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in November 2021 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

crisis communication

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