The Unintentional Executive, Vol. IX

Like many of you, I have been in the business world for quite some time. Early in my career, I remember being intrigued by the process of Strategic Planning, and the resulting Business Plans. They seemed so critical to business, so mysterious, so omnipotent. These sessions, and the plans they produced, were windows into the future. They charted the course the business would take over the next three, four, or even five years. They foretold the future. They unlocked the secrets to success.

As I progressed and matured in my career, I gained access to the plans and became involved in the planning sessions. I quickly realized that what I thought these sessions and plans were, was a far cry from what they actually were. Although the plans would contain overall revenue goals, product goals, etc. they didn’t necessarily address the strategies and tactics to really achieve those goals. They typically had a good deal of clarity for the short-term, but quickly became fuzzy as the time horizon expanded. Over the years, the horizon of clarity didn’t increase, but surprisingly began to decrease. In a world where immediate access to information was fueling an increasing rate of change, we were becoming rather near-sighted. The business world was simply changing too fast. Change was impacting everything, expect for the concept of annualized strategic planning.

Enter Agile Strategic Planning(SM) … a concept proposed a few years back and actually being implemented now. Essentially, you need to recognize that the planning horizon is no longer constrained by your fiscal or calendar year; and you need to adopt processes and tools to support shorter cycles. In our business, we decided to break our year into trimesters, but you can use whatever makes sense to your business. So instead of doing an annual strategic planning process and creating a multi-year business plan, we review our strategic plan every four months, and tile our plan out three trimesters into the future. We are always looking forward a year, but that horizon continuously moves as our business moves. Our theory is that we will be able to more easily and quickly adjust to changes in our business and industry. In a couple of trimesters, we’ll let you know how it works.

To make this work, we recognized early on that we needed to streamline our planning process and the artifacts that we create and maintain. In our case, we chose to leverage a digital collaboration portal. Everything we do is organized in our Strategic Planning hub; goals, objectives, strategies and tactics. They exist as text pages, documents, spreadsheets, etc. that are revision controlled and accessible to everyone. To institutionalize this concept, our challenge will be to have the discipline to turn that portal into a continuously updated representation of where we are going and how we plan to get there. We are early in the process, but it is promising and exciting.

If you stop and reflect for a moment on your organization, and whatever planning process you engage in, or don’t if that is the case … how effective is it for your business? Do you find yourself spending tremendous amounts of time and energy creating plans and presentations that provide structure for the first few months of the year, but quickly become aged and out of date? Is your business changing so quickly that you feel as if you are being reactionary for much of the year? Does the idea of laying out detailed plans 24-months into the future sound a bit ridiculous? If so, maybe it is as simple as realizing the concept of planning on annual boundaries is no longer valid, and the rate of business change has shrunk our long-term visibility. Maybe short-term horizons are now four to nine months, and long-term are six to eighteen months, depending on your business. Maybe it is time for your planning process to catch up to your business reality.

Back to Vol. VIII

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7 Responses to The Unintentional Executive, Vol. IX

  1. Andrew Wiech says:

    One thing I continuously say to any account I’m a part of is how dynamic the process can be. We can have a built plan and content calendar but most of the time, it becomes obsolete in 3-4 months, but the planning is still important. I see the planning as a chance to show knowledge and the potential value. After that, the plan may change, but the value is still there because we learn to evolve and adapt as time goes on.

    Just my take on the continuously moving target.

  2. An Interested Leader says:

    This concept is something that good organizations have practiced, albeit informally. Creating structure to the process and creating a method for communicating outside of email is what will really move the ball forward.

    The notion of planning in trimesters is interesting for a couple reasons. First, because companies both public and private operate on a quarterly basis it could keep the planning team “off balance” and prevent this planning from becoming rote. Sessions that happen at the start of a quarter will have a different tenor than sessions that happen at the end. I like this element very much.

    Second, it mirrors the strengths of an agile development process in that course correction is constant and that the plan is “ready to ship” and any time. Being able to pull down a current business plan on demand makes your organization focused and sharp.

  3. Glen says:

    Twice in the last three years I went into organizations as acting CEO. In both cases they had long range plans and in both cases they were meaningless. They did not recognize their current financial situations or their limited ability to get financing to address current operations- SWAT analysis are fine, but when the threats are internal they seemingly are unrecongnized. As the old saying goes, when you are up to your ass in aligators, it is hard to remember that your goal was to drain the swamp.

    • jimhoefflin says:

      Glen, This is so true! Thanks for the insights. And I bet in those situations, not only did they have long range plans, but they likely were not adequately tracking progress back to those plans on any reasonable time frame. Maybe you can go back in and help them re-work their process. Jim

      • Glen says:

        Actually, in both situations I worked a deal with bigger organizations who had a reason to help them survive for market reasons- neither would have made it for more than a couple more months- when you look at a current ratio ( current assets over current liabilities) that is less than one- something that I never saw as less than 2 in my 30 years at the place I ran, you have to know that there is something fundementally wrong with the structure of the organization and you need a capital infusion- be it real or at least someone with deep pockets if your vendors and creditors lose complete patience. In both cases there were board problems with education and fundemental understanding of operation- and unfounded and unrealistic hubris in the staff, the community and the board of directors. In organizations such as these it is easy to put your fingers on in a day or two. What is funny is that we all know that we pay attention to what is being measured- but in both cases they were measuring the wrong thing.

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