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7 Steps to Make Planning Easier

By Eric Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International

Takeaways: Planning can become an integral part of work. Prioritize, follow the Rule of Three, identify resources for each project, and set long term schedules are some of the steps to follow.

It is apparent that planning seems to be a business task that people now often equate to having a root canal procedure, doing the group planningannual budget process or maybe being audited by the IRS.  You know what should be done. You even realize it must be done (meaning you have little choice in the matter), but you really do not want to do it. There can certainly be many reasons why this is the case, some are good reasons and most are not.

We all know the value of planning in business though curiously we don’t often practice it with the same rigor in life in general. Perhaps we should. It certainly would help keep us in practice. “Practice planning” you say? It’s just planning, what is the big deal?

Over the past 30 years or so, planning has become a professionally acknowledged skill. The Project Management Institute certifies folks in project management which is founded in planning, but also ensures skills in managing and executing projects. The Association for Strategic Planning certifies folks in the disciplines of strategic planning AND strategic management. Companies hiring people for jobs that require a high degree of competency in these and related skills may favor hiring those who are certified in those areas.

So back to my original premise: why is planning sometimes viewed as an undesirable chore rather than a valuable part of the work of directing and managing any organization, large or small?

One simple clue lies in the complexity of work today. Not really in the planning per se, but in the fact that we all have so many different tasks to accomplish and are applying a variety of skills to those tasks that planning feels like a distraction.

Does this ring a bell for you? If it does, here are some suggestions to ensure that planning in your organization can become integral to day-to-day work.

Become aware and then acknowledge that the day-to-day tasks that keep filling your work plate are not always a top priority. This is not easy to do by the way. It requires careful consideration of priorities for yourself and others involved so you really do prioritize your tasks.

Apply the rule of three. It has been said many times if you have 10 or more things on your list and they are all a priority, in truth none is a priority. You simply can’t concentrate on that many things at once and get them done well. The rule of three makes planning easier. It suggests you pick the top three things to be done first, work on them until one is done and then add another from the to-do list, and so on down the line. It is amazing how few people think and operate this way on a regular basis. If you don’t, try it; if you do, you are likely a high performer.

Small and medium size businesses perhaps suffer the most from not devoting time for planning, and even more so, from not sticking to their plans. This is not always because the plan is bad, but because the resources to execute the plan are insufficient.

This is where a third suggestion comes to mind: perform a brief plan-to-plan session to outline the resources of time, people and dollars necessary to do the planning. Don’t presume you can layer planning on top of the most likely full plates of your team members and not have something either slip, or worse, begin to lose their respect. The tendency of some managers to mindlessly assume somehow a new set of tasks, like planning, can simply be absorbed into daily work is one of the quickest ways to sabotage morale.

Set long-term schedules for planning and DO NOT VIOLATE THEM.  Set meeting dates up to a year in advance, and insist that those who must be involved set their schedules accordingly, including vacations. Scheduling everything else around these key dates also helps to make planning easier.

Ensure you and your staff get some training in planning skills. These are available online as well as in classroom or workshop settings, so there’s really no excuse for your team members to miss an opportunity for this kind of valuable education. A good reason this can pay off nicely is that everyone will have some shared skills and language to use in planning, which will facilitate the communication about planning in your organization. And it makes no difference whether you are running an automotive repair shop with 7 employees, a town that employs 50 or General Electric that employs 300,000. Training all your people in planning skills from basic to sophisticated can actually make the difference between survival and failure or mediocre performance or stellar performance.

Acquire some basic tools to support your planning activities. These can range from one-page models on paper that help you create and track plans, to expanded written frameworks for conducting planning sessions, to larger-scale software applications. This does not have to be an expensive proposition.

Regardless of the costs involved, it is always wise to look at every planning exercise with my favorite starting systems thinking question: “What are my FUTURE desired outcomes?”

If your planning exercise or meeting does not start with this question, it most likely will not have the degree of success you intend. There are some very well-developed frameworks that will assist anyone in planning but not all will keep you focused on those future desired outcomes. I mentioned systems thinking because I deeply believe this discipline leads to the best approach for planning.

After all, what we are planning for is the future, right? Then we should really concentrate on the future so our actions in planning can help mold that future and not concentrate so much on today, which we can do nothing about because it was influenced by the past about which we can do nothing as well. Just ask the financial services industry about how they would like to roll the clock back on the mortgage debacle.

The last suggestion I have for today is to make certain that you have absolutely the best guidance possible in conducting your planning, and by that, I suggest hiring a third party facilitator experienced in planning. In small businesses, the owner tends to wear the planning hat and this creates a dynamic that often is counterproductive to good planning.

One challenge for a small business is to step back from the day-to-day, budget the time, and have a candid exchange about future plans. Some details about the business, the owner will be reticent to share, right or wrong, and the team will be inhibited from saying things that might affect them negatively, also right or wrong. Another challenge is that of budgeting time which really must be considered part of regular work. This means you either work the planning into regular workday hours or set it up as overtime. This will ensure your team takes you seriously about the planning.

Medium size organizations or teams within larger organizations actually share many of the challenges listed above for small businesses but have the added twist of coordinating their plans to support the organization’s overall plans. A good facilitator will not overlook this critical aspect of planning in a larger organization even if the planning exercise is focused on a smaller team or department within it.

Larger organizations absolutely must ensure they have strong processes and structures in place to ensure effective and efficient cascading of planning activities up, down and across the organization. Often a team of facilitators is employed to assist in these planning activities with a combination of third party facilitators and internal ones who help ensure the organization’s culture and planning programs are properly supported.

In summary, planning need not be a necessary evil but should be an exciting activity to keep organizations focused on future outcomes. When planning is integrated into day-to-day activities, when planning language becomes part of the organization’s culture, when planning activities are supported by spontaneous improvements through cross-functional communication, you create a higher performing organization.

But wait, there’s more…you are in fact helping to create that sought-after Fifth Discipline that Peter Senge writes about in his book by that title, a “Learning Organization”.  Remember, planning is not the exclusive domain of large organizations, it is vital to organizations of all sizes, and help is available to make it feasible, exciting and profitable.

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