Category Archives: Planning Skills

The Futility of Planning

“Planning in this day and age is futile,” Reggie complained. “The world changes so fast in these times, with technology, what is the point of thinking five years into the future?”

“Indeed,” I replied. “Do you think technology will be different five years from now?”

“Absolutely. So what’s the point thinking about decisions five years from now?” Reggie continued his protest.

“So, you think a decision made today might be wrong, five years from now?”

“Of course. Things change.”

“What kind of things?” I prompted.

“Technology drives all kinds of change, in the way we communicate, the speed of information, the precision of measurement. It changes our methods, our systems, our reach, our scope.”

“So, if we don’t think about those things in the future, we might make the wrong decision today?”

Reggie stopped. His head turned around. “You’re right. Planning is not about making a decision five years from now. Planning is about making a decision today.”

The Connection Between Time Span and Outcomes

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Thank you for your presentation to our group. I enjoyed it very much. It strikes me that while I like the concept of time span, generally, the concept of time is relative and it’s really about being able to see down the road of potential outcomes regardless of the time-frame.

Your thinking is on the right track and you have made the connection between time span (time-frame) and potential outcomes. Let’s take it a bit further.

In a short time span project, there may be several outcomes, but the characteristics of those outcomes are concrete and tangible. In a longer time span project, the possible outcomes multiply in number with less defined characteristics.

If an audio-visual contractor bids on a contract for a audio-visual setup, 65 inch hole in the wall, with a project deadline in three months time, what goes in the hole?

  • The technology is certain – plasma, LCD, LED-LCD, OLED, QDLED
  • The display is certain – CRT, flat screen, front projection, rear projection
  • The display surface is certain – reflective surface, flat surface, curved surface
  • The manufacturer is certain – Sony, Mitsubishi, JVC, Samsung, LG, Panasonic

There are a number of possible outcomes.

If an audio-visual contractor bids on a contract for an audio-visual setup, 65 inch hole in the wall, with a project deadline in five years time (a commercial project still in the design phase, hasn’t broken ground), what goes in the hole?

  • What will be the display technology in five years time?
  • What will be the surface technology in five years time, will there even be a surface, holographic?
  • Who will be the manufacturers in five years time?

There are a number of possible outcomes, but the characteristics are more uncertain. There is ambiguity and uncertainty. So, here is the question –

Given the ambiguity and uncertainty in this project, should the audio-visual contractor accept the contract with a deadline in five years time?

Some contractors would pass, saying there is too much uncertainty, no way to say what the project will look like. Some contractors, comfortable with ambiguity and with the internal capability to adapt to emerging technologies would gladly accept the project. What is the difference in the thinking? What is the difference in the organizations?

Who Will Happen?

“Who will our company leaders be in twenty years?” I asked. “Who will our company leaders be in five years?”

There were puzzled faces around the room. “Well, it’s going to be whoever steps up,” said a voice from the back of the room.

“What if that person is not currently employed here, and you have to promote someone without the capability to be effective in those roles?”

“I guess we will have to go to the outside and recruit,” came another voice.

“And, when will you know you need to do that?” I pressed.

“Maybe, we should get a committee together in a couple of years to look into our succession planning,” said someone from the front.

“Not good enough,” I nodded. “I want to see a personnel plan from every manager, every year. A rolling plan one year out, three years out and five years out. Do we need new roles on the team, do we need to take some roles away? Which personnel are operating effectively, who needs a new challenge, who needs to be liberated to industry? What roles will be replaced by technology? What growth or contraction do we expect?

“You see, succession happens all over the organization. It’s not just top leadership. Your technicians become team leaders, your team leaders become supervisors, your supervisors become managers, your managers become executive managers. Succession happens at each level of work over time.

“Planning for what will happen is not nearly as important as planning for who will happen.”

How to Plan More Than One Year Out?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

We just completed our strategic planning session, the output, a set of goals. And, as you predicted, all of our goals have a time frame of less than six months. How do we get our thinking out more than one year? How do we get our thinking out more than three or four years?

It’s a problem. Most companies are so results oriented, focused on tangible, concrete results, that thinking out four to five years is difficult.

It is actually a different language, one we are not accustomed to. One CEO friend of mine constantly poo-poos the idea of planning beyond six months. Here is the dynamic and why strategic thinking is so difficult.

In the near term, things, people, technology are all known elements, we can call them by name. They are concrete and tangible. The further we travel into the future, in our imaginations, the less distinct, the more ambiguous things become. If we travel far enough into the future, precise definition gives way to conceptual elements.

We no longer know who the customers will be in five years, but we will likely have customers. We do not know the exact features of our products in five years, but we will likely have a product offering. The market may not have the same requirements five years from now, but there will, indeed, be market needs.

The discussion turns from a tangible, concrete discussion to a conceptual discussion. And we do not practice conceptual talking (thinking) very often. Talking conceptually is awkward. It might even appear pointless. That is because we do not practice.

Thinking out twenty years is a useful step. Thinking out twenty years gives us permission to abandon our current thinking. So, take the year 2035. To ground this thinking, how old will you be? Now, simply imagine. What will transportation be like? What will communication be like? What will travel be like? What will food be like? What will agriculture be like? What will medicine be like? What will your industry be like? What will your products be like? What will your service be like? Who will be your company leaders in twenty years? Are they in your company or outside of your company? How old are they now?

Thinking out twenty years gives you permission to think differently. Thinking out twenty years gives you permission to think out five years in a new way.

Don’t Need a Personnel Plan

“I don’t need a personnel plan for next year,” Sean pushed back. “I have four managers who report to me, all are doing a good job, don’t see any need to replace any of them.”

“You need a personnel plan because life happens.” I said. “What if your top performer gets picked off by another company? Who do you have in reserve? Who is ready to step up? Who has the potential to fill that position?”

“I don’t know. But all my guys are pretty solid. I think they are all happy here. I don’t think they would leave even if they were offered more money,” Sean denied.

“They don’t have to leave. They might get promoted inside the company. Either way, you’d still need another manager on your team. What kind of depth do you have on any of those teams a level below? Is there anyone in the wings with the potential to move up?”

“I don’t know. I work directly with the managers on my team. I only hear about the problem people on their teams.”

“So, if one of the guys on your team gets tapped to lead a new project in another division, what would you do?”

“Guess, I would have to start from scratch,” Sean shrugged.

“So, what could you do now, to prevent having to start from scratch?”

How to Write a Personnel Plan

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

As our company looks to its annual planning meeting, I have been asked to prepare a personnel plan for my department. I have never thought about it before. When we get busy, I hire someone.

Many companies are faced with increasing volume, more revenue, more customers, more transactions, more inventory, in short, more work. And that’s the place to start. Define the work.

Start by defining the output, its quality standard, how much and where it ends up (the market).

  1. Steps required to create the output.
  2. Oversight required to implement the output, monitoring pace of output, quality of output, quantity of output related to target.
  3. Systems required to create consistency of output, predictability of output, to determine necessary resources. This would include not only the core systems (functions), but also the supporting systems (functions) necessary to create the output.
  4. Oversight required to implement all the systems together at the same time, optimized and integrated.

In the list above, I have described four different levels of work, each requiring a different level of problem solving and a different level of decision making.

Your department may only require three levels or two levels of work. It depends on your company business model, and whether your department is a core function in that business model, or a supporting function. Your personnel plan starts by defining the work.

The Curse of a Manager

“You look off-balance,” I said.

Renee shook her head. “Ever since I was promoted to sales manager, things are different. When I was on the sales team, things were exciting, always a new customer, a deal in limbo, a sale that closes, a sale that gets stalled. But there was always action. As sales manager, I only get to hear about that stuff from other people. I get to coach, but I never get to play.”

“What else is different?” I asked.

“When I was a salesperson, I was always focused on the day, or the week, at most a month or a quarter. Sure, I had my annual sales goals, but mostly, I only looked at what was right in front of me.” Renee took a breath. “Now, I live in the world of annual sales goals. My decisions are centered around how many salespeople on the team, which one is going off the rails, gauging whether our sales backlog is within the capacity of operations. Not very exciting stuff. And budgets. I am not just thinking about this year, I have to think about next year. The ops manager wants to invest in some automation and wants to know if I can generate enough sales to pay for it over the next three years.”

“So, the biggest difference is time span. You use to measure your success, or failure by the day or the week. You got constant juice from your deal flow,” I replied. “Now, there is no juice. You are working on goals that won’t be completed for one to two years. Oh, sure, you will soon know whether you are making progress, soon enough, but you won’t hold the result in your hands for quite some time. It’s the curse of a manager.

“But, here’s the thing,” I continued. “If all you ever think about is the next deal, the next customer, if everything you think about is short-term, then thinking about what needs thinking about, never becomes a priority. Planning never happens. Your ability to plan, your ability to think long-term atrophies. Making short moves in the needle is easy. Making large moves in the needle takes time. Most managers are too impatient to do that kind of thinking. They would rather get the juice.”

The Uncertainty of the Future

“You look absorbed in something,” I observed.

Abbe looked up from her desk. “Yes, I have this project coming up. Never worked on a project like this before. Don’t know anyone who has worked on a project like this before. Risky. Not devastating risk, but this project could go sideways fast.”

“And?” I asked.

“I am trying to think about projects we have completed in the past that could help me figure out this new project,” she replied.

“Looking for patterns in past projects will only help you so much. It helps you understand the past. But we live, going forward into the future. And we cannot predict the future. There is uncertainty and ambiguity. Planning helps, but even the best plan rarely survives its train-wreck with reality. We cannot control the future. The best we can do is be clear about our intentions. And prepare ourselves for that uncertainty.”

Running One Project Different from Ten Projects

“So, Roger. I want you to think about something. You did well on the first project we gave you. So we gave you another project. That means two projects,” I explained. “You were doing so well, we gave you a third project and a fourth project. With a fifth project, you are beginning to struggle. You short cut the planning, your schedules are breaking down and things are being forgotten.”

“I guess I didn’t realize,” Roger started. “You see, I have been keeping all that stuff in my head. I am pretty smart, have a good short term memory, so keeping track of the details for one or two projects is pretty easy. The more you gave me to do, the more I had to start writing things down. It’s a different way of keeping track of things for me. I used to just remember.”

“Roger, I want you to think about this. I am not going assign you more projects right now, but if I did, if I assigned you five more projects on top of the five projects you already have, what would you have to do differently to manage all of that detail?”

“I would probably have to put in some overtime,” Roger replied.

“No overtime. What would you have to do differently to accomplish ten projects in the same time that you now run five projects?”

Yes, Managerial Execution Like a Dictator

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Can you talk about the difference between a dictatorial management approach and a collaborative management approach?

Execute like a dictator!

No kidding.  Execution often requires precision sequences of skilled behavior.  Execute like a dictator.

But to be effective at execution (like a dictator) requires two things.

  • Collaborative planning
  • Practice (perfect practice)

So, there is a time for collaboration and a time for explicit direction.  And effective explicit direction does not (cannot) occur without collaboration in planning.

In football, collaborative planning is called skull practice.  Off the field, in a room, no pads and no football.  The group assembles around a chalkboard (whiteboard) and there are fierce discussions about problems and solutions, roles and assignments.  At the end, even if there is disagreement among the players, they still pull together.  People will support a world they help to create.

Skull practice is followed by perfect practice on the field, hours of it.

But, during the game, work instructions are short, often shouted,  There is no time in the moment of execution to discuss who is going to carry the ball.  But, effective execution only works when it is preceded by collaborative planning and perfect practice.