Planning Made Simple

Business planning has come of age. When Henry Mintzberg announced the death of strategic planning, corporate executives breathed a collective sigh of relief.

No more need to engage in centralized planning, with it’s tortuous reliance on data (which was never reliable in the first place), future gazing (which was the business version of astrological star gazing) or strategy implementation (which was the equivalent of a forced march of the troops towards an uncertain future).

In its place has arisen a collaborative approach to strategy development and execution, which is far more iterative in nature than it’s predecessor. This collaborative approach views planning as doing, and aims to compress the cycle of planning, execution and evaluation in a way that recognizes the realities of organizational life.

These realities include the very human need to innovate. Through experimentation with new ways of doing business, people are able to unleash their potential. Planning in the past had little tolerance for experimentation, and was bound up in the development of rigid business cases and risk management protocols. Such reliance on left brain approaches stultified what people in organizations had been calling for all along: an opportunity to break out of the box and provide far greater value-added than ever before.

This obviously presents some serious challenges for executive teams. The absolute worst place a team of executives can find themselves in is between the old school of planning and the new. Such transitional phases carry with them real danger – the main one being getting stuck in transition, being neither ‘fish nor fowl’.

What can an executive team do to move forward and embrace the new style? Here are a few tips from the field:

  1. Create a compelling vision statement that frames the evolving plan, and acts as a magnet for people who want to make a difference. Okay, you may have been ‘visioned to death’, but when it is done properly it can be transformational. For example, Disney used ‘Make People Happy’ as their Mission/Vision statement. GE under Jack Welch used ‘Be the #1 or #2 in our respective business sectors’. Vision statements need to be relevant, simple to understand, short, extremely compelling and yes, even a bit scary.
  2. Embrace the use of a balanced scorecard approach, which demands the use of a balanced set of measures and cause & effect thinking. This differs from traditional planning with its emphasis on results only. In other words, shift from a ‘management by results’ orientation to ‘management for results’. For more information on this approach, check out the text The Strategy Focused Organization by Kaplan and Norton, the originators of the balanced scorecard concept. This describes in some detail how you can translate your strategy into operational terms that anyone can understand. For those of you in the government or non-profit sector, you will find Paul R. Niven’s book Balanced Scorecard Step-by-Step for Government and Nonprofit Agencies, more relevant to your needs.
  3. Deploy a draft high level plan early, and ask for input from everyone in the organization.Leave gaps where they exist, avoid the temptation to look good through the use of ‘filler’…it won’t fool anyone, and will only discredit your team. This signals to the organization that the executive team does not have all the answers. While this may disappoint some people, most will welcome the opportunity to provide information and ideas at an early stage. The Japanese, after careful study and experimentation, adapted Management by Objectives to include what they call a ‘Catchball’ process, which provided for speedy back and forth dialog between the executive team and the rest of the organization, at an early stage, culminating in breakthrough ideas, which the executive team could never have come up with on their own.
  4. Make the evolving plan visible. Put it on desktops. Put it on the walls. Put it on everyone’s agenda.
  5. Make the process invigorating for everyone. Have facilitated working sessions early in the process. Let every team in the organization have their ‘planning retreat’, not just the executive team. Create a real buzz. This signals to everyone that it is not ‘business as usual’
  6. Persist. Avoid the scaremongers who will tell you that what you are doing is crazy, risk laden, and irresponsible. For example, some will try to lay the ‘accountability’ guilt-trap out for you. Accountability is a critical component of organizational life, but so is survival. Unleashing the potential of your organization is far more critical to survival than some bureaucratic emphasis on ‘keeping people accountable’.  Isn’t it far better if people willingly enroll in the plan, than being forced to do so through an archaic command-and-control approach to accountability? When people sign-up willingly, accountability becomes a breeze…in fact they will be the first to hold themselves accountable.
  7. Make the process continuous. As plans are implemented, carry out regular reviews and refinement. Don’t wait for the big quarterly or annual reviews…by then it’s probably going to be too late.
  8. Provide meaning. Keep in mind that people nowadays demand that work be invigorating, meaningful and joyful. If you don’t shape your organizations culture to provide these outcomes, you will end up with a dull, boring, listless organization that no one, including customers, will want to associate with.
  9. Be yourself. People will follow you as a leader if they know that they are dealing with the real you. While some may try to take advantage of your weak spots, you will gain more followers who will admire your courage when you admit that you don’t have all the answers, and maybe even not all of the questions.
  10. Lighten up and have some fun. Okay, you don’t need to wear a clown suit (but hey, who am I to tell you not to do something if you think it will help people lighten up!). Take a leaf from the book of organizational leaders such as Herb Kelleher of SouthWest Airlines, who has built an incredibly efficient and effective organization by getting people to lighten up.

Aristotle once said ‘That which we must learn to do before we can do it, we learn by doing it’. Planning as doing relies heavily on this principle.


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