Note: June has been crazy. As I attempted to post my end of month blog, I experienced some technical issues. This is a repost from 2014 on planning. Even though the content is from 2014, planning remains an important leadership function. The content is just as relevant today as then. Enjoy.
“Plans are nothing; Planning is everything.” Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Planning is one of the fundamental functional areas of management. Leaders at all levels plan. Depending on the event and their level in the organization determines how they plan, but the planning process should remain the same. Whether you want to develop a new vision for your organization, or you are putting together a small meeting for your staff, planning is the process that identifies the needs for what is desired in the future, the resources necessary to accomplish the task, actions requiring completion, controls and guide posts to watch for along the way and a statement of success. One of the reasons planning is valued more than the finished plan is understanding that no battle plan ever survives past first enemy contact, but in the planning process, key leaders have opportunities to evaluate different courses of actions, allowing them to change course as the situation evolves. This topic deserves more than the few hundred words dedicated here, however my intent is to provide readers a general direction for their own planning processes. The first step in any plan in to identify the objectives. Plans are only required if there is difference between the current situation and what you expect in the future. The purpose of the plan is to change the future. At the strategic level, leaders develop mission statements, share their vision and establish guiding principles. At the operational level, leaders develop work processes, gather resources, train workers and establish goals and task steps. Once the object is identified, develop alternative actions. Often this is done during brainstorming sessions, although other idea generating activities also work. Ideas do not have to appear practical or traditional. The important action at this stage is developing ideas. You may find that some of what originally appear to be flaky ideas in the beginning, when paired with other ideas, may work the best. Now that you have several alternatives, take time to evaluate them, whether alone or in a group. Identify their efficiency, alignment with organizational guiding principles, likelihood of success and other factors selected by the group’s leaders. During this stage, you should start to develop the measure for success. As alternatives are eliminated, the better ideas become evident. The completion of this step should involve a completed written plan. The plan does not have to answer all questions, but should provide enough information for those charged with implementing to understand the intent. Remember the old saying, “An imperfect plan delivered on time trumps the perfect plan delivered a day late.” Action is the next step in the planning process. A complete plan is not required to begin action. The great thing about mission and vision statements are they provide everyone an idea about which direction they should be traveling, even if they lose the directions to the final destination. Once the decision has been made to move towards a certain goal, action can begin. Starting movement is the hardest part of any change. Starting movement is the only way the plan will succeed. Once things begin to move, it is important to monitor progress. The plan should include specific check points where staff gather to report progress. Like any journey, if you don’t take the time to check your compass and read the road signs, you may find you took a left when you should have turned right in Albuquerque. These controls may include checks on spending, use of resources, percent of quality improvement, number of units sold or any other metric that measures progress. A final and critical step in the planning process is obtaining commitment from stakeholders. Too many projects fail for lack of this important support. Ensure the key leaders understand the resources requiring commitment for success. Obtain contracts from customers if necessary. Lock in resources from suppliers early. A finished plan may not be fancy. It may not be complete. What matters is the process used to arrive at the plan. Follow these steps and you increase your plan’s success. Start by determining the objective. Identify alternatives to reach the objective. Evaluate the alternatives, selecting the one most in line with organizational values and vision. Begin action as soon as there is commitment. Obtain commitment from key stakeholders. Check your progress regularly and plan those check-ups. As your project rolls along, you may find success lies off the road you selected to reach your destination, but through your planning process you identified detours and side trips. In the end, you will find your planning helped you make small adjustments along the way and reach your destination.
Author’s Note: For the last several years I have posted about setting goals and teaching people how to set goals as a leader. My current series about the importance of good management happens to include the pillar of planning. Given that the planning process establishes the directions to achieve goals, personal and organizational, it seems like this week is the ideal time to issue this post. For those who have read my blog for a few years, you will recognize familiar content on developing goals and steps for execution. That should come as not surprise. A word about this post’s length…like the post that started this series, planning is a very detailed process. Planning could take several posts to cover in great detail. This post is about twice as long as my goal of 1,000 words. It could easily be longer and perhaps that will be the next series. Leadership is a verb, so after reading this, plan a project for the New Year.
“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In war, combat leaders know regardless of how well they plan the battle, the enemy always has a vote about how the battle will be fought. As a result, many people find it easy to ignore planning given the completed plan will not likely be executed as originally envisioned. However, executing without a plan is like going on vacation with no idea where you are going, who is going with you, the mode of transportation you will use, or what activities (laying on the beach is an activity if not an active activity) you want to do. You may end up someplace, somehow, doing something with someone, but it may not be what you wanted. You may plan a cross-country trip by air only to find your flight is canceled because of weather but because you have a basic plan, you can adjust it and still arrive at your destination. Plans allow leaders to see the future and develop courses of action for potential eventualities. The process of planning allows leaders to think through ideas and identify potential problems before execution begins which allows the leader the opportunity to develop controls to mitigate those risks and ensure resources are available to take advantage of opportunities; no, to recognize a first that a situation is an opportunity. A good plan includes the following elements:
A vision of the finished state or product
Thought out task steps to complete the plan
Metrics to measure performance and effectiveness
Periodic check-ins to assess progress
Acquisition of resources
Timeline for completion of each step and the total project
Ensures people required to complete the work are present, trained and have the tools necessary to execute their work.
Vision is one of those things that separates leaders from managers. Leaders see the future. They identify the difference between what is and what could be. They possess the ability to communicate their vision with others in a way that inspires them to complete the work and join the journey. The vision provides people with a specific description of what the end state looks like, provides general measures of success, creates the impression that the vision is attainable, shows how the change is relevant to the organization and others, and the time it will be completed.
In the last year, both SpaceX and Virgin Galactic made large strides to make private space travel a reality. This vision was not something Elon Musk nor Richard Branson embarked on lightly. Each developed a vision just after the turn of the century to reach for the moon and the stars. Each has experienced progress and also set backs. Elon Musk admitted he missed his 2018 goal to send a private mission to the Moon. However, he did not quit. Rather he adjusted his plan and pressed forward after evaluating the lessons he and his team learned along the way. His updated plan is to send a private mission to the moon in 2023.
Both Branson and Musk understand an important vision principal. Like a bucket of water, it needs to be refilled from time-to-time or it will evaporate. The more people who understand the vision the more help the leader has to help keep the bucket full. People like Beth Moses and Michael Colglazier share Branson’s vision of private space tourism and travel. While selling your vision is important, often you make more progress with the support of others. People like to hear the music of the band rather than a continuous solo concert.
As with any journey, one needs directions. Task steps are a set of directions to complete the plan. They are the leader’s best guess of what needs to be done to complete the task. Not all task steps are created equal. The first few task steps provide details later task steps lack. The reason is that the organization, situation, and people change during the history of the project. As a result the later task step details may need to change to meeting the current operating environment.
Ensure the details of the task steps provide the doers with the details they need to provide completed products to continue the project. However, do not provide so much detail in how to do something that you strangle the creativity of those doing the work. Many times people will provide a superior product given a little direction and a firm understanding of the overall vision. The leader needs to provide the vision and a few details and let the experts do the work.
In this step, the leader specifies measurements of performance and effectiveness. Performance measurements measure how well the team is sticking to processes identified in the task steps. It does not matter if the process is developed at the team level or higher. Measuring performance is important because it allows leaders to know whether successes and failures in the effectiveness measurement are because the plan was not right, or if it was because of how well people followed the process.
Developing performance measures are easy. They provide answer to questions like,
How many widgets were produced?
How long does it take to type three pages of text?
How much did it cost to complete a task step with that process?
Effectiveness measurements are harder to develop. Measures of effectiveness tell the story about how well the plan is solving the problem and meeting the vision. Effectiveness is a strategic issue. Effectiveness measures tell leaders if they are creating the actual change the intended and creating the future they envisioned at the start of the planning process. These metrics are generally developed at the leadership level.
Effectiveness measures require leaders to have that clear vision of the future. They tell the story of that progress. Effectiveness measures provide answers to questions like,
As a result of this plan how are people’s lives better?
Has this plan resulted in an improved working environment?
Are the parts of the plan creating a product that looks like what the leader envisioned?
To compare and contrast the differences in measures of performance and effectiveness lets look at a real project. In 1501, the Florence Cathedral commissioned Michelangelo to complete a statue of David for their buttress. They hired two artists before Michelangelo but neither had the skill required to finish the statue. Of course Michelangelo did and is credited with creating a true masterpiece during the Renaissance.
If we look at the performance measures, the other artists chips away stone and started to create important features of a person depicted in the sculpture. They were executing the correct processes to make a great figure in stone but not achieving the desired outcomes. Michelangelo understood what was necessary to create the statue desired by the Florence Cathedral. He had developed the skill and ability to carve stone, combined it with his artistic vision and created an object still viewed six centuries later as a masterpiece. That is a measure of effectiveness.
It is important to periodically check progress to insure the plan is moving in the desired direction. Turning back to the David Statue, notice that Michelangelo started with an in-progress work. Those who wanted the statue were not pleased with the progress of others who had been hired to work on the project. They evaluated the situation and adjusted processes by hiring new people to complete the work. Things change over the course of a project. Leaders need to periodically check progress to ensure the project is still relevant, moving along as expecting, and still promises to effectively fulfill the leader’s vision and effectively solve their problem.
Resourcing is an important leadership and management function. While there will be a paper later dedicated to greater details of resourcing, discussing resources while developing a plan is necessary here. If you have read any biography of any great or even good military commander you will notice that they rarely worry about whether their troops will successfully maneuver to close with and destroy their enemies. Smart military leaders worry about whether they can sustain their soldiers ability to fight by continuing to provide the fuel, water, ammunition, and food to keep men, women, and machines moving. Planning to ensure you have the necessary resources on hand to begin a project and a viable supply chain to account for resupply needs is required for teams to successfully implement the overall plan.
Timelines are necessary to keep people focused. Timelines are not always set in stone and frequently can be changed. However, some projects lose relevance if not completed by a particular time. These are some of the things that need to be evaluated during periodic reviews. Timelines establish goals for completion of required steps. Timelines should be synchronized to ensure parallel tasks are completed as necessary to move on to the next steps.
I was a leader in a military school house. Course managers had checklists to complete tasks by certain times to ensure that instructors were qualified to teach, had resources available, and students in seats for every course. Course managers had to advertise the course in the military education system to ensure they would have students. They trained instructors to ensure they were qualified to teach others. They ordered educational material, meals, and housing based on the projected student body. If the course manager missed a step, the school would have problems executing the course to military standards and waste food, money, time, and other resources. Having a time based checklist ensured course managers succeeded.
All but the smallest of organizations have some sort of human resource program. If people are resources, why not cover this topic in the resources section? I have a separate section because people are a special kind of resource. Unlike standardized repair parts for machines, and toner cartridges for printers, people are not standardized. It is not easy to sway Betty and Bill. Leaders need to make sure they have qualified people in place to execute their plan. Sometimes that means outsourcing some work especially if the project is a one-time thing. It is important to ensure you pay your people well for what they do. More than half of people in a recent survey stated they felt they needed to change employers to receive a pay increase because they would not likely receive it from their current employer. Likewise, it is necessary to train your people well. You do not deserve to expect quality results unless you train your people. There is an old saying to the effect, “What happens if we train people and they leave? What happens if we don’t train people and they stay?” Leaders are measured by the number of leaders they make. Train your people and pay them well.
Planning is an important leadership function. It requires thoughtfulness to ensure the organization achieves the leader’s vision. Man did not walk on the moon for the first time just because President Kennedy said he would. Kennedy’s dream of a man walking on the moon before 1970 was his vision, the first step in planning. Leaders at NASA and other organizations put together detailed plans to ensure that men went to the moon, landed, and returned safely. Those leaders took the President’s vision and created task steps and metrics to succeed. They assessed their progress and adjusted course. They acquired necessary resources and developed timelines. Finally they ensured they had well paid, well trained people to build and fly the machines that allowed man to walk on the moon. Little progressed in NASA’s original plan for the first moonshot so it is easy to say they should just wing it. However, it was because of the plan they were able to assess their mistakes, make corrections, and finally allow people to walk on the moon. The plan itself may have little importance in the success of a project but having good people who know how to plan ensures leader visions will be fulfilled.