As my sweetheart was preparing for a birthday party and a trip to Galveston combined, I made the mistake of trying to discuss the schedule and the plan for preparations. With some exasperation, I was told that she didn’t have time to talk about the plan because she had too much to do. Now, my wife is a professional who manages major projects, some worth millions of dollars, so she is all too familiar with the necessity of planning. And yet, in the ‘heat of battle’, she wasn’t willing to stop and discuss what had to be done, when was the best time to do it, and who should do it. I am sure it seemed like a waste of time that looked to her to be better spent doing ‘stuff’.
As a wise and experienced husband, I said okay and walked away. Only later did I realize what a gift she had given me. She had expressed in simple straight-forward terms a message many of my clients have been trying to give me. Only they added some window dressing that delayed my ability to see clearly what they were saying.
Like my wife, my clients are smart people and while, intellectually they know the value of planning, in the heat of the moment there is almost anything they would rather do than talk about it. Part of this comes from their previous experience with planning activities. Clients tell me that in the past they have wasted a lot of time participating in group discussions about the range of possibilities available and everyone’s ideas on the pros and cons of each. These feel like, and often are, wasted attempts at constructing a useful plan.
Those past experiences aside, no one, when pressed, will deny that planning is important. But they see the importance through the lens of when it worked. For example, let’s consider that the task at hand is to build a house. Everyone knows that the foundation has to come first and that the structural members need to be available shortly thereafter to begin framing out the house. Then comes the cladding and the roof and then the drywall. Because the entire project can be visualized, a plan that lays out the construction schedule defining when specific material and trades need to be on site to do their part of the work is easy to adopt, develop and implement.
So why then is there hesitation to engage in meaningful planning? I think there are three fundamental reasons:
- Lost Opportunity
What my wife was conveying is what leaders of fast-moving companies are feeling. They have a limited amount of time to take advantage of the opportunities the market and their competition are affording them, and to postpone action in favor of planning feels like they will miss out on something that they might have achieved if they had just kept at it. What they fail to acknowledge is that they will make mistakes that they need to stop and correct that might have been avoided if they had just taken a little time to plan.
Businesses today are complex. There are many moving parts to a modern organization and they interact with each other in numerous ways, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Trying to take the time to understand rather than act looks like a waste.
To create a meaningful strategic plan, there are four key areas to visit: Growth, Profitability, Product/Service and People. While some organizations add others, these four are most commonly used. Breaking the planning into these four areas reduces the complexity and promotes meaningful analysis. The challenge is that each cannot be optimized without diminishing one or more of the others. A successful plan not only looks at each, but also looks at the tradeoffs necessary to produce a balanced plan.
While no one can see into the future, we can observe trends, but extrapolating them into the future is risky. However, we can create scenarios and assign probabilities and then do “what-ifs” to explore how the organization would respond to each. The trick in a changing market is to develop the indicators that alert you to what change is coming and what previously prepared plan needs to be activated. Having worked through a scenario and determined the indicators of coming change prepares an entity to shift early rather than late.
Perhaps the worst thing to do in planning is to assume that an extrapolation of past activity and performance is all that is needed. Analyzing past activity is an important thing to do, but assuming current trends will continue is often hazardous.
To be effective, and not waste time, planning itself needs to be planned for. There is an old Dilbert cartoon where Dilbert questions his boss about the wisdom of jumping into a pre-planning meeting too fast without a pre-pre-planning meeting first. The boss falls for it and even more time is wasted. That is not what I am talking about.
For planning to be effective, the relevant historical information needs to be assembled as well as the status of all in-process initiatives. Further the group of planners needs to be thought through. The more people involved, the longer the process will take. The ideal is to have exactly who needs to be there and no one else.
Then the meetings need to be scheduled far enough in advance so everyone can attend all meetings. This is more critical than most things as it is very important that all the key people hear all the conversation around each alternative as well as hear the resolution of those discussions and the decisions made.
With proper preparation and astute meeting management, planning can become something that is welcomed rather than dreaded. In addition, it will produce positive results that will more than justify the time spent.
If you would like more detail on the specifics of developing an effective Strategic Plan, read this blog post and download the complimentary eBook that follows it.