Throughout the pandemic, SAS resisted pressure to furlough or lay off staff while doubling down on its commitment to providing the best possible support to customers in a hugely difficult period. It was, in many respects, an object lesson in resilience.
So, when we sat down with Senior Director, Customer Advisory, Laurie Miles, we took the opportunity to talk about the fundamentals of resilience, the importance of planning for a range of scenarios and the part played by data in helping companies to not only make good decisions but also achieve a sense of perspective when faced with apparently unprecedented challenges. It’s about a 6 minute read.
Q1: Preparation is a key pillar of resilience. But what does that mean in practice? Businesses are navigating very uncertain waters. How can you create the kind of plan that will enable business leaders to make fast decisions in the face of changing circumstances?
Planning is important, but as Mike Tyson once remarked: everyone’s got a plan until they are punched in the face. Does that mean that planning is pointless? Clearly not. It’s vital to have a plan and backup plan. But once you have a backup plan that you’re comfortable with, you create another backup plan for that. And what you end up with is a set of plans that cover just about every foreseeable event. So, when something happens that threatens to blow the business off course, you don’t have to make decisions on the fly. You have already mapped out the options and you can choose the best according to the circumstances.
Q2: How do you address that on a personal level? A business may have a resilience plan – or set of plans in place – but how do you ensure that individuals within the organisation can make the right decisions, quickly and effectively?
We all have resilience, but we don’t all deal with things in the same way. To take an example. Let’s say something happens to two people. One person brushes it off. The second deals with it badly. That’s not necessarily a reflection of the second person’s resilience. It’s simply that they haven’t had time to think about the problem.
My view is that by understanding people at an individual level, you can coach them in becoming more resilient.
Q3: Decision making has become much more complex – indeed, 65% of business decisions are now more complicated than they were just two years ago, according to a 2022 report by Gartner. Are there ways of utilising real time data to aid the decision-making process?
I am a data analyst by trade so I can’t quite believe I’m going to make say this: Sometimes you just have too much data.
The way I see it is this. The reason that decision-making may be more complicated than it used to be is because people are taking so many things into account. Things that ten years ago they simply wouldn’t have been able to consider. So, we have to ask ourselves a question: with all the available data, are the decisions we are making better, the same, or worse? Well, sometimes they are better, sometimes they’re the same, and sometimes worse.
And in the real world, there are a lot of pressures. Timelines may be important. There are circumstances where it’s better to make an OK decision quickly than a fantastic decision too late. And there is a danger that we get blinded by the extent of the data. We start thinking about things that aren’t so important and we miss the obvious things that should inform our decisions.
Real time data can be incredibly useful – if I see BP’s share prices tanking, I’ll sell my shares – but sometimes too much data means we make too many decisions at a granular level.
Q4: Over the past two years we’ve seen crisis after crisis on a global, personal, business, and societal level. How does SAS respond and navigate this period of uncertainty and change?
I think there are two different angles to this – how we have responded in regard to our employees, and how we have responded in regard to our customers.
In the case of employees, we haven’t laid anyone off. We didn’t furlough a single member of staff. That even applied to the canteen staff. When necessary, we gave people new roles and supported our whole employee base. Everyone got a laptop, a chair, a monitor, as well as working from home allowances to pay for gas and electricity bills. We have given pay rises and bonuses, and have carried on recruiting. We have implemented a completely flexible hybrid policy, where employees can come into the office whenever they want to. SAS have really done all they can to support their employees.
From a customer perspective, we immediately asked who needed help. In some cases, we deferred software payments. Most importantly we helped the government in a very difficult time. We were instrumental in implementing the furlough scheme. Because we had worked with HMRC in the past, we know their systems inside out, and so we immediately mobilised the team. According to an HMRC estimate, we completed three years of work in three months by working full time, weekends, bank holidays, 12-hour days, and whatever it took to support the government and support the country. So that’s one example of what we did for our customers and also for the wider population throughout COVID.
Q5: Looking beyond your staff and customers to the bigger picture, people and businesses are facing huge challenges. Gas prices have reached an all-time high and the cost of energy has soared by 54%, costing the UK economy billions of pounds, according to McKinsey (2022). Can you help companies navigate these challenges using historical data?
Of course we can! It’s what we do! We analyse historical data to build models and rules to make better decisions. We also build scenarios and simulations to help businesses perform in the face of these wide ranges of options and scenarios.
And historical data is fantastic at giving us a perspective that helps us to see the world as is, rather than how we think it is. I’ve been reading a book called “Factfulness”. The author looks at data which appears to be really bad and puts it into perspective. For example, inflation is now at 8%. I remember when it was at 26%. What this book highlights is that the 8% figure represents historically low inflation. To take another example, If you take the COVID mortality rate – not that I am trivialising it – the number of people that died in the worst year of the pandemic was lower than only 11 years previously. Because of advances in healthcare, treatment and people looking after themselves, populations are generally healthier and live longer. All COVID did was take it back 11 years. It is tragic – but it’s not world-ending, cataclysmic tragic. If you compare COVID to the Spanish Flu in 1917 then it’s a drop in the ocean, and we lived through that. However bad it feels, relatively speaking it’s still okay.
Thank you Laurie Miles.
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