Planning is an important part of business and life because it helps you make effective decisions, clarify your priorities, and successfully achieve goals. However, planning can also set you up for failure, in a way, because the speed of our 24/7 life these days guarantees that you will experience situations you could not have anticipated. You will encounter variables that will impact your goals, and you’ll have to make changes in response to them. So, you might wonder if planning is a waste of time.
And to a certain extent, the way planning is traditionally done, it is. But here are some tips to help you update your approach to planning. These tips empower you to take constant change into consideration while planning and even find opportunities to leverage it.
1. Plan Broad Directions and Strategies, Keeping Details Flexible
Usually, your vision and general strategies can stay constant despite changes in your environment. However, once you drill down to details that dictate specific actions to be done on a specific schedule to achieve specific goals, you are likely to get derailed quite quickly. For example, you might outline a sales plan that prescribes a certain number of target clients, a certain number of outcalls each day, a certain number of meetings each week, and scripts for the various products you are promoting. Then the product mix changes, your contacts move from one company to another, and there is a new opportunity you couldn’t have predicted. If you spent weeks designing the scripts and researching the target clients, this might seem like wasted time in retrospect. Spending a few hours instead outlining the main characteristics of target clients, the key problems your products address, and your general approach to growth gives you a direction and paves the way for you to set more specific intentions in the shorter term based on what you see in front of you.
2. Engage in Short Term Sprints
In the tech industry, for the past several years, the “sprint” has been a common approach to working productively, and it has caught on in other industries as well. With a broad direction and strategy, we can look at what’s in front of us and set priorities based on current opportunities, issues, or challenges. The “sprint” is usually a two-week period where the entire team prioritizes accomplishing one initiative while putting everything else on the back burner. The goal is to complete one relevant and important thing. After a sprint, there is usually a period when the team debriefs and selects the next sprint. Some teams allow a week for the debrief, which gives everyone time to take a breath and get caught up on other work. But at the end of the week, the next sprint is chosen, and everyone focuses on accomplishing the next significant thing. Sprints line up with the direction and strategy of the organization while also taking into consideration what is happening now, what we’ve learned recently, and what bubbles up as most important based on these new variables.
3. Expect the Unexpected
When I work with executives to set up their time and work management system, I notice that it’s pretty common for people to start each day with the hope that they can complete the majority of an eight hour to-do list, but end each day frustrated from the interruptions and crises that derailed them. One shift that has been especially helpful is to take a realistic look at an average day or week and acknowledge how often you get interrupted or called to handle unanticipated problems, and then time-block for the unexpected. So, instead of going into work assuming there will be eight productive hours, assume we might get two hours of focus time outside of regular meetings and actually block out an hour or more to handle the unknown issues we can’t predict specifically, but we know from experience will likely show up. This enables you to handle issues with focus, grace and presence as opposed to the resentful and rushed “crisis” energy that arises when we get interrupted. In the rare instance that nothing unexpected comes up, use that time to work ahead on tasks that can be interrupted without causing much stress.
4. Develop Scenario-Based Plans
The best sports team coaches train athletes on how to be agile and react to situations as they arise. You don’t want the quarterback to only be able to execute one variation of the one play that is called. Instead, you want him to be able to execute any number of variations based on what happens during the play while immediately communicating the resulting changes to his teammates. In business, you can also plan and train effectively by imagining a variety of potential scenarios and learning from the ones you didn’t expect. You will always encounter new circumstances you simply couldn’t anticipate, but when you develop a practice of approaching situations in a systematic way, it’s almost like creating a “fill in the blank” template of how to handle things based on your culture, values, and prior experiences. This template shortens the decision-making process and ensures that different people and personalities will generally handle situations the “right” way without having to regroup. In continuing with our sales example, we might teach our sales team members to handle a customer’s push-back on price by asking more questions and probing more deeply. In fact, we tend to ask more questions and probe more deeply in some other customer interactions too, such as when a customer keeps putting off meetings or has other objections. If a salesperson runs into an entirely novel customer situation that she hasn’t faced before – let’s say political infighting that will make it difficult to deliver the product effectively – based on her training, her first instinct might be to ask questions and probe more deeply, but she would be coming up with new questions based on the situation at hand.
5. Create “Working” Plans
At Nahid Coaching & Mentoring, we developed a “Working Business Plan” for business owner clients that enable them to draft a business plan in just a few hours and continue to build on and modify it as needed. A working plan is essentially a draft plan that includes short term actions and frequent updates. You take a few hours to draft the plan, identify the most important thing to focus on in the coming week or month, and then “check in” with the plan each month to update the status and new actions. I love “working” plans because they work with you almost like a coach does, providing ongoing accountability while taking into consideration the fact that everything changes and what you committed to last month could easily become irrelevant two weeks into this month. The simplest way to do a working plan is to write a “draft” of your plan based on information you currently have access to and make notes about information you want to find out and add later. At the end of your plan, you can define either your next sprint if you are also using that technique or simply a short-term focus along with when you will check in with yourself next. Set a reminder on your phone or in your calendar to check your plan on that day. Then, when the day comes, you add a “status update” to the front of your plan that includes what you actually did, what you wanted to do but didn’t, what changed, and what you learned. Then scan your draft, make any changes you want, and fill out the last portion of your plan with your next sprint or short-term plan. You can choose the frequency of check-ins – anything between weekly and monthly usually works well. Once you get yourself into a rhythm, this “working” plan will keep you on track and focused and always be relevant.
If you would like to learn about our “working business plan” template or discuss this in more detail, feel free to reach out to Nahid to set up a call.