Failing to plan means planning to fail, so the saying goes. Louis White looks at the critical management skills involved in successful planning.
Although the ability to plan is a skill that some managers lack, more often it is a process that they deliberately avoid. Managers typically get caught up in the ‘now’ of the situation and fail to set aside time to plan for the future.
A key problem is that managers may load themselves up with too many day-to-day tasks. With so much busyness it is very difficult to think about next week, let alone six to 12 months down the track.
But planning is a critical management tool and cannot be left in the to-do pile.
Harold Burman, a consultant with the Australian Institute of Management, says planning is crucial.
“Managers need coordinated action to achieve results; coordinated action is facilitated by joint planning. It is a manager’s role to anticipate and prepare for the medium and longer term,” he says.
Burman believes that during difficult times, a lot of managers unconsciously alter plans to focus on the areas that they are technically good in, or that they get unduly stressed when the plan needs to change in response to a change in the situation. But flexibility can actually result in a better plan.
“Planning is about achieving the desired results. Planning requires a common understanding and shared meaning of the plan’s purpose. Once the team has shared meaning, joint planning can take place within the organisation to help achieve its desired results,” says Burman.
Five key skills
Burman says that there are five critical skills involved in planning. “First, there is questioning to discover what the current situation is, the starting point and what the organisation is looking to achieve. Second, listening is crucial. You need to identify key stakeholder concerns and expectations. Third comes the subject of metrics: to measure for success and progress, and decide what needs to change.
“The fourth area is the scenario planning to cover the ‘what ifs’. You need to be sure everyone is working on the same page. Last, a plan needs to tell
a story about where the team is going and how it will get there. A story that engages and motivates. A plan needs to come to life and by presenting it as a story it will help do that.”
It is not uncommon for a plan to unravel as each section head goes about focusing on the tasks she or he likes, or avoiding the areas that they are not either particularly interested in or don’t believe in. Furthermore, if everyone is not committed to the plan, there is very little likelihood of implementation.
Burman goes so far as to say that the planning itself is more important than the plan.
“It is all about the planning process, which must be consistent with the business culture,” he says. “You need to have positive inquiry and be prepared to investigate the past to see what went right and wrong, learning from experience and looking forward.
“A lot of managers are seduced by activity and are too often down in the courtyard and not up on the balcony. This is even more so today with the extra pressure of the global financial crisis.”
A flexible approach
For Jerzy Fracek, who specialises in facilitating management teams in project management in his consultancy role with AIM, the key is to take a plan slowly and be very flexible in your approach.
“A common mistake with plans is to include too much detail,” says Fracek. “Only put in as much detail as you need. Organisations also get carried away with trying to implement a plan too quickly. Unless you take it slowly, it won’t work.”
Fracek believes it is also important to ask the question ‘why?’, not just ‘how?’, when it comes to a strategic plan. He says plans can be broken into three different areas.
“You have strategic planning, which is all about focusing on the long-range horizon but shallow in detail; then there is operational planning, which is narrow in time frame but deeper in detail than strategic planning; and that leads to tactical planning that links one area of the plan to the other. This is a tricky area as most managers think breadth and width instead of one or the other.
“While it is important to see the big picture you have to be light on your feet. You need good stakeholder management and the ability to manage their expectations. Managing the change in the organisation is one of the more difficult things to do.
“With every plan you have what is called ‘scope creep’, which is incremental change to the plan. A lot of managers will get nervous about this, but quite often unexpected outcomes lead to a better plan.”
Whatever the plan in your organisation, make sure that you understand it, embrace it and work together as a team if you want a successful outcome. A plan is only as good as the people carrying it out.
Planning dos and don’ts
- Do have high-quality data from which to work as this will lead to more information and subsequently better decision-making
- Do involve people in the organisation with experience and knowledge
- Do have both an informal and formal decision-making process
- Do create a culture of transparency and trust
- Do be flexible in your planning
- Do work in a language that everyone understands
- Do ensure that the plan is in alignment with your values, strategic focus and key performance indicators
- Do ‘helicopter rides’ where you stand back and look at the whole plan.
- Don’t use poor data
- Don’t ignore intuition
- Don’t over-plan
- Don’t do the planning behind closed doors
- Don’t follow a plan if it is not working.