Preparing for transition

Preparing for transition
When a head of state unexpectedly dies, abdicates or becomes unable to keep their office, the public is shocked. The same individuals would be horrified if a successor was not named soon after the event and civil disorder could result, as was seen recently with the tragic deaths of the Nepalese Royal Family. To work well, the transition of old to new ruler or temporary caretaker has to be clear, based on law or tradition, communicated decisively and known to all.

If the chairman or other top-ranking executive of a major corporation meets an untimely death, retires or simply moves on, there should be in place a clear succession or transition plan. This provides for continuity of operation in an organisation, whether in the private or public sector.

Transition or succession planning is therefore a very specialised form of risk management. It involves the identification of critical individuals and their potential successors.

The more organised plans also include the management of media and public perceptions during the transition. Ideally, the successor is trained and given perspectives, experience and the necessary knowledge to take over in a smooth and controlled manner, but this is not always the case.

When Franklin D Roosevelt died suddenly in 1945, his vice-president, Harry Truman, realised how little the late president had prepared him, particularly with regard to knowledge about the war and forthcoming problems with the Soviet Union. Truman later said: “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”

When key employees suddenly leave or become incapacitated, the impact to an organisation can be enormous as they hold organisational, process and political knowledge in their head. It doesn't matter how well the person's responsibilities are documented or how well knowledge and contacts are managed throughout the organisation, a person unfamiliar with the work will be less confident, slower, will not have the right network in place and might make mistakes because of things that someone more familiar with the position would take for granted.

In today's knowledge economy, it is therefore vital that transition and succession planning is undertaken in all important areas of the organisation. Think now of your own organisation. Who are the key knowledge people – those whose incapacity or departure could, even temporarily, cripple your projects or long-term strategy?

Don't evaluate just the managers – we all know how scarce some IT programmers can be. Who are the real knowledge experts, team leaders or evangelists in your organisation? How will you replace the person who has worked in almost every unit of your organisation during the past 20 years, the one person who knows how things really work in both operations and the business? How could you replace the evangelist for the new business unit that may provide essential cash flow during a possible recession? And what if the young, energetic technical wizard left suddenly? These are some of the areas where a successor should be identified.

There are many philosophies of how to manage this process. Some say it is not wise to publicise the contents, or even the existence, of such a plan. Others say the plan can only work if it is in full public view. Whichever way your organisation believes is best, planning ahead is vital.