Planning for Post Pandemic Success

Screenshot of Cora Assistant PPM Software

In this episode we hear from Philip Martin. Philip is CEO of Cora Systems, a company he co-founded in 1999.


Drawing on 30 years’ experience in the portfolio and project management industry, he has built a global client base across Europe, the Middle East and USA. He previously held positions with major US multinationals, including 3Com, Tellabs, DSC and Pulse Engineering.

In this bonus episode, which is a recording taken from a webinar, Philip Martin, the CEO and founder of Cora Systems, discusses : “Planning for Post Pandemic Success”.

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Welcome. I appreciate you taking your time out of your day. I know you’re busy. Hopefully, we can impart some little nuggets to you today around portfolio planning, especially portfolio planning during the pandemic which is a very unusual circumstance. What we have today is literally two parts. One is a little bit of talk around portfolio planning and I hope to give you some nuggets around that. And for those that are interested then, I am going to show you the Cora PPM tool, it is the portfolio planning module that we’re just about to release in Cora PPM. You’re getting the first cut of it here today; hopefully, you’ll enjoy the session.

If you think about it, when we talk about recessions, and they typically come every 10 years,  give or take. So, we’ve got 11 plus years this time around. We are in the bonus territory. So, does that one extra year make any difference? Probably not. But one thing for sure is, we have what looks like a downturn or recession and a pandemic at the same time. I don’t think that’s a big difference, there’s a huge difference – just having a downturn or recession on its own, right and why is that?

Having a pandemic is obviously terrible and has had a serious impact on a lot of people but it also presents an opportunity for business. And it’s a little bit of that and a little bit of, “Okay, how to plan a portfolio during one of these pandemics?” is what today’s lecture is about. We’re gonna give you some hints and tips and give you, hopefully, a takeaway where you can go away and understand: “How to plan a portfolio in nine easy steps”. And at the end of the session, you will become an expert portfolio planner.

With just that comment, I am not an expert. I’m somebody who, as the MC said, had a favourable experience. I am the CEO of a software company that itself has had a portfolio plan and you take a lot of turns and twists on the journey, and you adapt, and you do your best to re-plan. But there are a number of key steps that I have learned along the way as part of that role as CEO in the last 20 years. I like to think I’ve learned a lot more from our clients. So, our clients are multinational, global clients, maybe some as big as 80-100 countries worldwide to the 20-man operation who we can learn just as much from. There are a broad variety of clients out there. We’ve learned a lot and hopefully, you’ll see a lot of learning from that here today.

I am going to start here because this is the one you’re looking at on the screen: you see something called PESTEL which is something that I have been most sceptical of. You are looking at the, probably, most sceptical person in the world right now. PESTEL was something I opposed and said “This is a load of baloney”. First of all, what PESTEL stands for, it is Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, and Legal.

These are all the factors you consider when you’re putting together your strategy and your plans for the future for your business. I more often than not paid bad lip service to this, especially the blue and the red one, the Social and Environmental one. Like “What impact does the social, what impact environmental have on my business?” Last year, a lady called Greta Thunberg turned a lot of ups and downs on people’s business.

Now suddenly, you have to be carbon neutral or carbon conscious and green and what your business does to make it greener. And suddenly everybody is looking at carbon footprint and trying to understand that. And just when you think nobody could surpass Greta, along comes COVID and suddenly you have this social problem where everybody has to stay at home, they can work together and it’s completely changed the way businesses work and their model.

So this PESTEL thing. There’s a lot of factors that relate to each of those six, and you can look them up easy enough, it’s all over the web. We are partners with Gartner and Gartner gives us some really valuable information from time to time that we use and we look at. The point I was making early on about a pandemic sometimes being an opportunity is not every vertical is impacted by the pandemic.

In fact, some are doing very well and if you’re a global firm at the moment, the opportunity might be huge. I get an automatic email from a pharma magazine every day and every time I read the notifications, it is some new potential cure that has gone up about the COVID virus. Obviously transportation, travel, as sectors, all that has taken a hit, but not to say that they are not going to bounce back.

There are opportunities in those verticals that are green and it’s trying to understand how those can impact you. So a lot of things that we are pretty certain of, it has changed the way we work, for example. If you’ve got a strategy, like many businesses around the world it is set out from the last 3 months of last year to go live with January this year of which is a brand new strategy, it probably hasn’t changed that much. It might have been delayed a bit but your strategy probably hasn’t changed that much.

Sometimes sticking to your guns as well is important. I just think that if you’re in one of those green areas, the recession is probably not gonna hit you as badly, and if some of your clients are even in some of those green areas, you’re probably not going to be as bad as the recession we had back in 2008, 2009. So, you are probably trying to pick up, I’m sceptical, but I am also a “glass half full” person. I don’t honestly believe this recession will, sorry, this downtown will turn into a major recession as it hit in 2008 and 2009. And I just hope I’m right, as probably most of you hope, too.

So things we’re not certain of, we’re not certain of this recession, we are not certain of our cash flow. We don’t know if our regulars are going to keep coming in and if this impacts consumers and ultimately that will come back to business B2B, as well, before long. There is a lot of uncertainty in all of this, as well.

How do you react? How do you plan business in all of that? The first thing you do is – you stabilize. So it’s pretty much all about making sure you got cash for your business to survive. This downturn is not going to last forever. It’s literally going to be, in my view, I think we’re going to be back in September, October.

I talked to other clients who think it’s going to be a year or two years, a year and a half time, or when they find a cure. And if you’re Donald Trump fan you probably think, the week after next. So, literally there are a lot of different views to when we’re going to get back in there. Nobody knows who’s right and nobody knows who’s wrong.

What you see on the screen, and out of all the lines on the screen, go to the last, the very last line – “the winning on the turns”. Gartner are a partner of ours. They have really good stuff sometimes. And this “winning on the turns” I love. It is about being ready when this downturn turns up, you are ready, your business is ready, you are ready to make the most of that because while everybody else is saying “Okay, time to put a plan in place, let’s figure out what we should do next” and that takes a week or month or three months, depending on the size of your business.

You’ve already done this. You have minded your cash, you’re ready with your plan and you figured out where you need to go and as soon as that bottom hits, there’s an upturn, you’re going with it and you’re already ahead of your competition. So what can you do to be there and how can you actually manage your portfolio around that?

Again, strategy realization is a new term that Gartner has come up with. People have been doing it, but, for me, this is a topic that is so close to my heart because I told you what it was in a nutshell, it’s about making sure that your organization is doing the right projects. Literally nothing else. All the thought process is around it, but the bottom line is – it’s about making sure that you’ve got the right project in there because let’s think about it: If you spend a year doing the wrong project, now you spent other resources on that, maybe a million, 10 million euros, depending on the organization, €100,000 or €10,000, whatever it is, on a project that you should not have been doing.

If you could have eliminated that project from your thinking at the very beginning and done proper portfolio planning or in this case, strategy realization, you would never have taken on projects in the first place, you would have saved that money. Not only would you have saved that money, but you would have spent that money on what we call “star” projects, which are the ones that would actually deliver back returns to you. And by the way, the first one is called a “dog”.

So there stars and dogs. Think about your business. Have you got dogs in your business right now? How did they get in there? Why did they get in there? They probably went there because somebody’s hunch was a really good idea “We should do this project” but nobody actually gets the research behind it to make sure that you should have done it. Or somebody very senior, I’d like to call it a “CEO special”.

I think of myself there when I say that. So a CEO special is the one that the CEO says that “We should do this” and there’s nobody else around the table either willing or who have the ability to turn that one down. And suddenly it becomes a part of your project portfolio. And a year later you’ll discover: “Why the hell did we do this?” We did it because Philip said we should do it but not with nobody else changed, could change his mind.

This touchy-feely approach to portfolio planning doesn’t work, it costs you money, it costs you time, it costs you frustration and in some cases, it can cost you people, as well, because they just get so frustrated working on something they know that is never going to work. A big part of all of this portfolio planning before you start the big part is around culture and I have always highlighted two or three words on this slide.

Again, Gartner does these surveys where they check out various things but linking back culture to the bottom line, and a lot of you are like “What are you on about? Culture? What’s culture to do with portfolio planning?” and when we sell to a client, one of the first questions we will always ask them in the workshop that we do with them is: “Tell us about your culture.” And that tells us whether they’re gonna be successful in implementing this, delivering, moving with it, developing and being successful with it. If the culture is not right, it doesn’t matter what you do, what process you bring in, it will never be right. So culture, again, if you were to move on slightly, one thing we’re saying here is you can relate culture to the bottom line in your organization. So if you got the right culture that impacts your bottom line, impacts your profitability, impacts your revenue, impacts your ability to operate well as a business. That’s a key point.

Rules for successful strategy realization

So, we developed nine rules for successful strategy realization, successful portfolio planning. The first one is – find out what your culture is. Cora is a pretty good example here, we’ve got a very healthy culture or at least I’m very biased and think that’s right, but we’ve got great people just willing to go the extra step for the company. Especially in this environment and the number of people in our organization that I had a conversation with at eight, nine, or ten o’clock at night.

I stayed last night to 12 at night on company stuff just because people are interested and want to be in it. That’s culture and nobody pushes that, nobody forces that down people’s throats, it’s something they do because they want to do it and that comes from their behaviours, and it will impact a successful portfolio plan. So, simple thing, do people come into a portfolio planning session with an agenda of getting their things done, or do they come in with a culture of “We want this company to be successful”? There is a big difference. So, that’s the first step.

The second step – design your strategy. It sounds very simple when you put it on the bullet point on the slide but not quite as easy. The strategy goes with clarity. If you are clear, if you’re ultra-focused, ultra-clear what it is that you want from your business and you can keep that and you can describe it to your mother or to someone who’s not familiar with your business. It’s really, really good because it has to be understandable by everybody in your business.

One tip I picked up from my journeys over the last few years was, and we do this now is “Can you draw your strategy in a picture?” People remember pictures and why would I want people to remember my strategy in the first place? Let me maybe dig into that one a bit further. If you have a picture of your strategy and people can memorize it and they go to a meeting where somebody wants to go off strategy and the rest of the people in that room can remember what your strategy is and realize very quickly “Hey this doesn’t fit well. This does not fit where we want to go.”

That’s one of the reasons why you want clarity of strategy, right throughout your organization and if you ask somebody at any stage what your strategy is, they will tell you just like that. That’s what’s really important about your strategy.

The next step on this is all about creating your budgets and portfolios. So, you get all these ideas and before you get those ideas, what boxes are they going into? What portfolios are they going to get into? Is your organization structurally set up to deliver your strategy?

Quite often is not, quite often it’s not the right person in place to deliver that piece of the strategy. They might be better at delivering the piece of the strategy over here. It’s not that you are moving them or demoting them. It is just that you want the right person to deliver the most success to the business and again that goes back to culture.


Philip’s Free Guide to Planning for the Post Pandemic Economy can be downloaded here.

Watch the Webinar here.

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