The planning season is year-round
Fall is the time of year when organizational leaders gather together to plan for the forthcoming year. Managers spend weeks, even months, collecting data and preparing materials for executives and board members to review, discuss, and use to decide on an organizational “future.” But the “future” is not a fixed point in time and space, nor is “planning for it” a static, finite event. Planning is a process driven by the requirement that organizations make clear the goals, the path, and the need to learn from and improve upon results.
Successful planning, whether for annual business operations or broad strategic moves, is driven by process as much as anything else. Organizations have choices regarding paths and outcomes, and the better they choose and the more nimble they are in execution the better they will perform. Choices, absent productive processes that genuinely engage the organization, will lead to unsatisfactory ends.
There are many ways to organize the planning effort. We know and have worked through many. But we have an affinity for processes that drive understanding, agreement, coordinated implementation, and learning (with adjustments). We refer to this process as the 3 A’s of Agreement, Application, and Adjustment; and we recognize and understand that the work to be done requires year-round effort by all levels of the organization, not just the most senior leaders. If you want your people to use initiative and judgement, you must give them the context within which to make choices and act appropriately. That only comes through promoting understanding.
The need to agree knows no season.
Gaining agreement in a planning meeting is an important early step, but successful planning is ultimately achieved by the efforts of the fuller team to deliver on the plan’s goals. For this to happen, everyone who will contribute via “application” of the plan must know how “what they do” fits with, supports and promotes the plan objectives. They can’t do that if they aren’t part of the discussion and they will have little ownership if they are not part of the “agreement.” This doesn’t mean everyone must participate in all planning meetings, nor accept the plan delivered by others.
There should be meetings across the organization, at all levels, through all channels and departments to develop and sustain a shared understanding. Understanding drives agreement, fuels efforts to apply the plan to daily work, and seeks new learning from measured results. This means senior management must accept its role as facilitator, communicator and promoter of the planning effort.
The above requires both the commitment to “think” and the commitment to “act.” To transform an organization in the service of a shared set of objectives, one must engage everyone, to varying degrees. And that simply doesn’t happen via a less than year-round, multi-level effort.
Application of the strategic plan is ongoing.
Whether focused on year-to-year business planning or longer-term strategic planning your organization must engage with all levels of the team in all seasons of the year to ensure both appropriate application of the plan to action, and to learn from the results in order to make modifications drawn from that experience.
We all spend time on daily issues devoted mostly to business planning topics. Staffs are directed to look at and act upon annual progress to near-term goals, probably measured by financial numbers, and key operational metrics. But, no matter the early attention given to any annually published strategic plan, organizations readily fall back into focusing on measuring and managing to short-term goals.
This short-term bias happens because the effort needed to put daily work and issues into strategic context requires effective processes to communicate up, down and across the organization. Additionally, the organization requires processes to measure, put in context, and learn from the results daily activities have upon the longer-term goals defined by strategic planning. Absent the ongoing effort to contextualize the strategic plan in daily life, it is never real, never comes-to-life for staff, and never becomes a focus for learning and growth in your organization.
Adjusting your plan leads to year-round learning.
Planning “works” and leads to successful outcomes when people understand. Context matters, and people learn best and make their best contribution when they know the game plan and understand how what they do impacts the organization and its plan. Therefore, measured results should be part of all staff dialogues related to plans and processes. Things only get better when there is continued focus on desired outcomes, and regular measurement with focus on learning.
But measuring, learning and adjusting to bring your plan to life doesn’t only happen at the working level. Senior management and board members can benefit from ensuring that long-term goals and strategically chosen paths are highlighted at each board meeting. Here too, context matters. Reviewing short-term performance without including the longer-term context robs much of the discussion of any potential to learn from and adjust for monthly results.
Let strategic new business topics inform your discussions year-round.
The management guru, Peter Drucker, observed that the typical board meeting followed an agenda that started with old business moved through current activities and then, only at the end, addressed briefly (because time runs out), any new business brought before the board. Drucker asked wisely “why can’t the topic of new business come first?” Drucker knew that it was new business, the issues that needed to be addressed in shaping the future, that needed more time and attention than could be given only after the old business was addressed.
We admit putting long discussions of strategically important, new business subjects at the head of senior meetings may be too much change for many people. But here is one simple idea to promote change in how you operationalize your plan. Why not try to introduce new topics, focused on strategic concerns, at the beginning of meetings in order to bring strategic context to the later discussions of daily and monthly business events? In fact, why not try to inform all of your meetings at all levels of your organization to promote agreement, appropriate application, and process and plan adjustment? You might find this small change in communication will reap large rewards.