Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Do you have plans or planners?

 I'm diverging a bit from my normal focus on innovation and strategy to write a brief piece on planning.  You see, planning is vital for strategy and for innovation, and is so ubiquitous that no one in corporate America believes that they lack for planning.  Planning is vital for innovation because planning is the concept of thinking ahead - getting ahead of the market, of competition, of customers.  There is no innovation without planning - you simply cannot innovate a new product or service immediately.  Most real innovation take years of development, or years of trial and error before they get it right.  We often only see the result, not realizing that a successful innovation was actually a twelve year overnight success.

Likewise, planning is important for strategy.  Thinking about strategy is thinking about how to win in a competitive marketplace and making decisions about investments and differentiations that will happen in the future and be realized in real time.  Planning is the art of thinking ahead, and if done well, thinking further and more deeply than your competition, leading to better ideas, but not necessarily better outcomes.  While I'll focus today on planning, obviously good planning without execution is worse than doing nothing at all.

A few quotes will guide us through our look at planning.  First, Ben Franklin.

Failing to plan is planning to fail

This quote is somewhat paraphrased, but it means basically the same thing as what Ben Franklin wrote as one of his many quoted sayings.  Few individuals can live by luck or happenstance alone, and this fact becomes reinforced and enlarged when we pull back to the larger scope and issues of a business.  Planning is vital for success and failing to plan is akin to driving down the highway at night with your headlights off.

Ah, you'll say, but we know this.  All of us plan regularly.  Don't we all have annual planning cycles in which we develop detailed plans about the next 12 months?  I'll acknowledge that many companies go through an annual planning cycle, but they do it in a rote manner, merely shifting the demands and timelines forward, repeating many of the same activities as in previous years.  Planning in many companies is formulaic, simplistic and very narrowly focused, looking only at what the company does, ignoring customers, markets, competitors, economies and so forth.  

When doing a little research (a fancy way to say Googling) on quotes for planning I came across one of my new favorites, from an unlikely source - Tolkien - who said, roughly paraphrased again, that it does not make sense to leave dragons out of your plans if they live in your neighborhood.  In other words, there are issues and challenges in your markets, competitors and environment, and if you are paying attention your plans should include these challenges to your business.  Far too often, corporate planning is conducted as if the company lives in a sealed bubble, impervious to what happens in the wider world.

Plans are useless, but planning is everything

The quote just above is attributed to Eisenhower and sometimes to Churchill, but it doesn't really matter who said it.  The concept is true.  Eisenhower was thinking about fighting a war, when an army has a plan but circumstances, weather, the enemy and other factors get in the way.  His point was that a plan, any plan, is, by itself, useful in one set of conditions, and an interesting artifact if the circumstances change.  Or, as Mike Tyson famously said - Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

A plan is an artifact about what you thought might happen at a specific point in time, with fixed parameters and assumptions.  It is useful as long as its scope and assumptions hold true and becomes significantly less valuable as those assumptions or scope changes.  This is why Eisenhower and Churchill both recognized the value of planning - the activity - rather than the value of the outcome, the plan.  Planning, thinking about the possible futures, the things that will work in your favor and those elements that will work against you, and being able to foresee them and prepare for them, is what is valuable.

Companies today talk about being "agile" and nimble but make annual plans that are fixed to a specific set of conditions and assumptions.  If those assumptions change, or conditions aren't what were anticipated, plans go out the window, and little additional planning or thinking is done.  What is done is reacting to conditions.  A good planner understands the sensitivity of his or her plan to various conditions and assumptions, and carefully watches to track which of his or her assumptions or conditions are changing or are no longer true. The concept of being agile is valuable but being agile requires good planning.  Being reactive is not the same as being agile.

If your planners create dynamic, flexible, adaptable plans, they will identify the areas of sensitivity in their models and plans and will adjust to meet emerging challenges and conditions.  Planning, therefore, isn't an activity you conduct once a year in advance of the budgeting season and neglect the rest of the time.  Planning is a verb, an action verb, and should be engaged all the time.  The more competitive the market, the more change is underway, the more planning you need.

Don't just do something.  Stand there.

This is one quote I'd like to claim as my own, but I'm sure others have thought of it as well.  It turns the well-known demand - don't just stand there, do something - on its head.  I always think of this idea when I am reminded of how Einstein approached problems.  If given an hour to solve a complex problem, he said he'd use 55 minutes planning and considering the problem and 5 minutes defining an answer.  In the same way, we could bring into this discussion the Stephen Covey principle about "sharpening the saw" or Abe Lincoln's idea about sharpening the axe before cutting the tree.  These are all ideas about taking time to do the prep work and the planning correctly before plunging into the work.

Corporate America is often very ready to get the plans done, so that their teams can move out to do the "real work", so planning often gets very little time or focus, and once completed, plans are rarely reconsidered unless a business unit or product group is well off-plan.  And, when that happens, few people stop to consider whether or not the plan was wrong from the beginning, or if the conditions have changed.  No, if a team is off plan, it must be the team's fault.  For putting so little actual thought into a plan, we definitely make very high-quality plans.  That last sentence was entirely tongue in cheek.

Plan. Do. Check. Act.

I like the PDCA cycle because it starts with planning, has an action verb (do) and then has a review step (check), meaning that you should go back to check your plans.  Too often we treat these activities in a linear fashion, always moving forward but rarely going back to the source to confirm what we thought then is true today, or how we may need to adjust our thinking or actions.

In this brief post, I wanted to highlight the importance of an activity that we all think is important, but that we rush through, do once instead of honoring the fact that planning is an active verb, and rarely revisit even when the conditions the plan was built for have changed.

The faster the world works, the more change that is upon us, the more strategy and innovation we want and need, the more we need planning.  Plans are vital, but they are ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow.  The skill of planning, and the regular exercise of planning, is what will create real market opportunity and differentiation.  Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Do you have plans or planners?  Do your plans ever change?  Do you know which assumptions or conditions the plan is based on create the most sensitivity and upend the plan?  Do you regularly check your assumptions and conditions and update plans as the conditions change?  Are your plans gathering dust on the credenza in your office? Planning is an art, a verb and creates value.  Plans are an artefact, a noun and are useful in a moment.  It's important to know the difference.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:58 AM


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