A business contingency plan is a backup strategy for your team or organization. It lays out how you’ll respond if unforeseen events knock your plans off track—like how you’ll pivot if you lose a key client, or what you’ll do if your software service goes down for more than three hours. Get step-by-step instructions to create an effective contingency plan, so if the unexpected happens, your team can spring into action and get things back on track.
No one wants Plan A to fail—but having a strong plan B in place is the best way to be prepared for any situation. With a solid backup plan, you can effectively respond to unforeseen events effectively and get back on track as quickly as possible.
A contingency plan is a proactive strategy to help you address negative developments and ensure business continuity. In this article, learn how to create a contingency plan for unexpected events and build recovery strategies to ensure your business remains healthy.
A business contingency plan is a strategy for how your organization will respond to important or business-critical events that knock your original plans off track. Executed correctly, a business contingency plan can mitigate risk and help you get back to business as usual—as quickly as possible.
You might be familiar with contingency plans to respond to natural disasters—businesses and governments typically create contingency plans for disaster recovery after floods, earthquakes, or tornadoes.
But contingency plans are just as important for business risks. For example, you might create a contingency plan outlining what you will do if your primary competitors merge or how you’ll pivot if you lose a key client. You could even create a contingency plan for smaller occurrences that would have a big impact—like your software service going down for more than three hours.Create a contingency plan template
Project risk management is the process of identifying, monitoring, and addressing project-level risks. Apply project risk management at the beginning of the project planning process to prepare for any risks that might come up. To do so, create a risk register to identify and monitor potential project risks. If a risk does happen, you can use your risk register to proactively target that risk and resolve it as quickly as possible.
A contingency plan is similar to a project risk management plan or a crisis management plan because it also helps you identify and resolve risks. However, a business contingency plan should cover risks that span multiple projects or even risks that could affect multiple departments. To create a contingency plan, identify and prepare for large, business-level risks.
There are a variety of reasons you’d want to set up a contingency plan. Rather than building one contingency plan, you should build one plan for each type of large-scale risk or disaster that might strike.
While severe earthquakes aren’t particularly common, being unprepared when “the big one” strikes could prove to be catastrophic. This is why governments and businesses in regions prone to earthquakes create preparedness initiatives and contingency plans.
A government contingency plan for an earthquake could include things like:
The names and information of the people designated to handle certain tasks in advance to ensure the emergency response is quick and concise
Ways to educate the public on how to respond when an earthquake hits
A timeline for emergency responders.
If your business is particularly data-heavy, for example, ensuring the safety and security of your information systems is critical. Whether a power surge damages your servers or a hacker attempts to infiltrate your network, you’ll want to have an emergency response in place.
A business’s contingency plan for a data breach could involve:
Steps to take and key team members to notify in order to get data adequately secured once more
The names and information of stakeholders to contact to discuss the impact of the data breach and the plan to protect their investment
A timeline to document what is being done to address the breach and what will need to be done to prevent data breaches in the future
You can create a contingency plan at various levels of your organization. For example, if you're a team lead, you could create a contingency plan for your team or department. Alternatively, company executives should create business contingency plans for situations that could impact the entire organization.
As you create your contingency plan, make sure you evaluate the likelihood and severity of each risk. Then, once you’ve created your plan—or plans—get it approved by your manager or department head. That way if a negative event does occur, your team can leap to action and quickly resolve the risk without having to wait for approvals.Create a contingency plan template
Before you can resolve risks, you first need to identify them. Start by making a list of any and all risks that might impact your company. Remember: there are different levels of contingency planning—you could be planning at the business, department, or program level. Make sure your contingency plans are aligned with the scope and magnitude of the risks you’re responsible for addressing.
A contingency plan is a large-scale effort, so hold a brainstorming session with relevant stakeholders to identify and discuss potential risks. If you aren’t sure who should be included in your brainstorming session, create a stakeholder analysis map to identify who should be involved.
You don’t need to create a contingency plan for every risk you laid out. Once you outline risks and potential threats, work with your stakeholders to identify the potential impact of each risk.
Evaluate each risk based on two metrics: the severity of the impact if the risk were to happen, and the likelihood of the risk occurring. During the risk assessment phase, assign each risk a severity and likelihood—we recommend using high, medium, and low.
Once you’ve assigned a severity and likelihood to each risk, it’s up to you and your stakeholders to decide which risks are most important to address. For example, you should definitely create a contingency plan for a risk that’s high likelihood and high severity, whereas you probably don’t need to create a contingency plan for a risk that’s low likelihood and low severity.
You and your stakeholders should decide where to draw the line.
A business impact analysis (BIA) is a deep dive into your operations to identify exactly which systems keep your operations ticking. A BIA will help you predict what impact a specific risk could have on your business and, in turn, the response you and your team should take if that risk were to occur.
Understanding the severity and likelihood of each risk will help you determine how exactly you will need to proceed to minimize the impact of the threat to your business.
For example, what are you going to do about risks that are low severity but high likelihood? What about risks that are high severity, but relatively low likelihood?
Determining exactly what makes your business tick will help you create a contingency plan for every risk, no matter the likelihood or severity.
Create a contingency plan for each risk you’ve identified as important. As part of that contingency plan, describe the risk, and brainstorm what your team will do if the risk comes to pass. Each plan should include all of the steps you need to take to return to business as usual.
Your contingency plan should include information about:
The triggers that will set this plan into motion
The immediate response
Who should be involved and informed
Key responsibilities, including a RACI chart if necessary
The timeline of your response (i.e. immediate things to do vs. longer-term things to do)
For example, let’s say you’ve identified a potential staff shortage as a likely and severe risk. This would significantly impact normal operations, so you want to create a contingency plan to prepare for it. Each person on your team has a very particular skill set, and it would be difficult to manage team responsibilities if more than one person left at the same time. Your contingency plan might include who can cover certain projects or processes while you hire a backfill, or how to improve team documentation to prevent siloed skillsets.
Make sure relevant company leaders know about the plan and agree with your course of action. This is especially relevant if you’re creating team- or department-level plans. By creating a contingency plan, you’re empowering your team to respond quickly to a risk, but you want to make sure that course of action is the right one. Plus, pre-approval will allow you to set the plan in motion with confidence—knowing you’re on the right track—and without having to ask for approvals beforehand.
Once you’ve created your contingency plans, share them with the right people. Make sure everyone knows what you’ll do, so if and when the time does come, you can act as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Keep your contingency plans in a central source of truth so everyone can easily access them if necessary.
Creating a project in a work management platform is a great way of distributing the plan and ensuring everyone has a step-by-step guide for how to enact it.
Review your contingency plan frequently to make sure it’s still accurate. Take into account new risks or new opportunities, like new hires or a changing business landscape. If a new executive leader joins the team, make sure to surface the contingency plan for their review as well.
It’s great if you’ve created contingency plans for all the risks you found, but make sure you’re constantly monitoring for new risks. If you discover a new risk, and it has a high enough severity or likelihood, create a new contingency plan for that risk. Likewise, you may look back on your plans and realize that some of the scenarios you once worried about aren’t likely to happen or, if they do, they won’t impact your team as much.
A contingency plan is a powerful tool to help you get back to normal business functions quickly. To ensure your contingency planning process is as smooth as possible, watch out for common pitfalls, like:
It takes a lot of work to create a contingency plan, so before you get started, ensure you have support from executive stakeholders. As you create your plan, continuously check in with your sponsors to ensure you’ve addressed key risks and that your action plan is solid. By doing so, you can ensure your stakeholders see your contingency plan as something they can get behind.
Some company cultures don’t like to think of Plan B—they like to throw everything they have at Plan A and hope it works. But thinking this way can actually expose your team to more risks than if you proactively create a Plan B.
Think of it like checking the weather before going sailing so you don’t accidentally get caught in a storm. Nine times out of ten, a clear sunny day won’t suddenly turn stormy, but it’s always better to be prepared. Creating a contingency plan can help you ensure that, if a negative event does occur, your company will be ready to face it and bounce back as quickly as possible.
It takes a lot of work to put a contingency plan together. Sometimes when you’ve finished, it can be tempting to consider it a job well done and forget about it. But make sure you schedule regular reminders (maybe once or twice a year) to review and update your contingency plan if necessary. If new risks pop up, or if your business operations change, updating your contingency plan can ensure you have the best response to negative events.
A contingency plan can be a lot of work to create, but if you ever need to use it, you’ll be glad you made one. In addition to creating a strong contingency plan, make sure you keep your plan up-to-date.
Being proactive can help you mitigate risks before they happen—so make sure to communicate your contingency plan to the team members who will be responsible for carrying them out if a risk does happen. Don’t leave your contingency plan in a document to collect dust—after creating it, you should use it if need be!
Once you’ve created the plan, make sure you store it in a central location that everyone can access, like a work management platform. If it does come time to use one of your contingency plans, storing them in a centrally accessible location can help your team quickly turn plans into action.Create a contingency plan template