Tag Archives: planning

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.

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.”

Are Budgets Necessary?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

We are looking at our planning scenarios for next year, and one question we have is the value of creating a budget. Doesn’t it make more sense just to print comparative reports year over year rather than spend the time to create something new?

I always go back to purpose. What is the purpose for a budget? What are the questions we ask ourselves as we look forward to next year?

  • What is our market? Size of market? (Facts or assumptions)
  • What macroeconomic factors impact our market?
  • How much of that market can we expect to earn with our product or service?
  • Is our product or service something that can impact the market (materially) different than in the past, with a disruptive technology or delivery method? Or is it a product or service with a maintenance track that will substantially see similar volume to last year?
  • Given our assumptions about our revenue levels, what is the appropriate cost structure to deliver our promises in the marketplace?
  • Does that cost structure deliver the gross and net profit levels, appropriate to the risk, and within the return on (investment, assets) that we believe appropriate?
  • Is there a disruptive (to our market) cost that we are willing to suffer that might dramatically impact our positive ability to sell or take marketshare? Like a warranty program or alternate delivery method, like air freight for a heavy product? I know it might be heavy, but the question of air freight might spark an idea.

I see budgeting as a bit of realism for our strategic decisions. The purpose of budgeting is to help us make those decisions. As a post-mortem, budgeting helps us check our assumptions (were they wrong or confirmed) and how well did we execute on the decisions we made.

When I am working on this process with a company, a quarterly shakedown on the questions (above) help us deal with reality and adjust (our assumptions, our efforts, our cost structure, our decisions). In a stable, incremental business model, year over year may be a satisfactory approach. Where the business model is seeing dramatic disruption, by economics, technology, largess competition, regulation or other factors, a zero-base approach may be appropriate.

Budgets ARE necessary as a measurement to check our assumptions and aspirations in the market.
Hiring Talent Summer Camp kicks off July 7. More information here.

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.


Caught Off-Guard, by Simplicity

Marcus was already in the conference room when I arrived. He had some papers spread on the table. I could tell by the look on his face he already had the answer. We were drilling down on an installation project that was under water.

“I knew when you asked for the production reports,” he started, “that we would find the problem within 30 seconds.”

“And?” I queried.

“You don’t even have to read the reports. The first three weeks, things are very repetitive. So repetitive that, starting in the fourth week, you can tell someone just photocopied the reports from the week before. The only change is the date at the top of the page. Then starting in week six, the reports stop.”

“And what does that tell you?”

“Well,” Marcus grimaced, “the quality of these reports follows exactly the real production curve in the field. We were meeting targets for the first three weeks. Things began to slide in week four and by week six, things went to hell in a hand basket.

“This is a very repetitive job, and it is very apparent that the weekly planning process just stopped. Everyone figured they would just keep working instead of stepping back to check progress and adjust. It seemed so simple, they lost the discipline of planning.

“The managers probably saved three hours per week in planning and checking, but lost more than 180 man hours in productivity. And they didn’t even know it until it was too late.”

“What’s the lesson?” I asked.

“Don’t relax by the appearance of simplicity. You still have to plan and check. In this case, the payoff would have been three hours to save 180 hours.”

How to Troubleshoot Productivity

I don’t know what happened.” Marcus grimaced. “Sure we were working under some tight restraints,” he explained. “During the first part of the contract, things were going well, but by the end, the wheels were coming off.”

“What do you think happened?” I asked.

“The contract called for several thousand feet of installation. We hit it with enthusiasm, high energy, everything clicked. I don’t know, but midway, we began to fall behind. Because of the working conditions, we could only work eight hours each day. Maybe we got sloppy, in the end, trying to finish, our quality got so poor that we had to go back and re-work several sections. First our margins disappeared, then our budget went completely underwater.”

“What do you think caused the erosion?”

“I don’t know. It was like we ran out of gas. I mean, everyone knew what to do. Technically, everyone was trained. The daily punch out was identical from start to finish. In the beginning, it was easy. In the end it was impossible. We just couldn’t keep up the momentum.”

“So, it wasn’t a matter or know-how or training. It wasn’t a matter of external conditions. Was it a matter of incentive or motivation?”

“No, you could see it in the eyes of the crew. They were in it, they were with it. They just could not produce.”

“Tell you what,” I interrupted. “Let’s pull the production records of the crew for the past six months and see what we find.”

Marcus went silent. I could tell he had mentally stumbled upon the reason. Before he left the room, he said he would have the records by the next morning.

Working Leadership Course – Fort Lauderdale

Aug 6, 2013 kicks off our next Working Leadership Series in Fort Lauderdale Florida. This program contains twelve modules in six classroom sessions. The program instructor will be Tom Foster (that’s me).

If you would like to pre-register for the program, use the Ask Tom link, tell me a little about yourself and we will add you to the pre-registration list.

Schedule (All sessions – 8:30a-noon)
Session 1 – Tue, Aug 6, 2013 – Orientation, Role of the Manager, Time Management
Session 2 – Mon, Aug 12, 2013 – Working Styles, Communication
Session 3 – Mon, Aug 19, 2013 – Positive Reinforcement, Team Problem Solving
Session 4 – Tue, Aug 27, 2013 – Planning, Delegation
Session 5 – Wed, Sep 4, 2013 – Decision Making, Accountability
Session 6 – Mon, Sep 9, 2013 – Effective Meetings, Coaching

Location – All classes will be held at Banyan Air Services in Fort Lauderdale FL in the Sabal Palm Conference Room.
Banyan Air Services
5360 NW 20th Terrace
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33309

Tuition – $1600 per participant. Vistage member companies receive a $100 discount per participant. This includes all books and participant materials.


Session One
Orientation. During the initial Session, participants will create both a company and a personal framework, setting expectations and direction for this program. Participants, through directed discussion, create the connection between the program course material and their day-to-day management challenges.

Role of the Manager. Introduces the distinction between supervisor and managerial roles. Clarifies the specific goals necessary for effectiveness. This module creates the foundation on which rest of the course material builds. Incorporates source material from Requisite Organization – Elliott Jaques.

Time Management. Introduces the textbook Getting Things Done by David Allen. (Text included as part of the program).

Session Two
Working Styles.
Participants will complete a DISC survey (DISC is an online instrument published by TTI) and report on their own identified strengths and working style.

Communication. The largest challenge, for most managers, centers on issues of communication. This Session will introduce participants to a new level of conversational “reality.” Introduces the text, Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott, as reference material. (Text included as part of this program.)

Session Three
Positive Reinforcement

This segment reviews the management research of Elliott Jaques and Abraham Maslow regarding “why people work.” Explores the role of positive reinforcement outlined in by Aubrey Daniels – Getting the Best Out of People.

Team Problem Solving.
Expands Fierce Conversations to the group setting. Designed to move a group into “real work,” using a team problem solving model. Demonstrates how to build a team through problem solving.

Session Four
This segment introduces a results-oriented planning model, based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which participants can quickly use in any situation where planning would be of benefit.

Delegation. Participants are introduced to a specific model of effective delegation. Most managers hold certain mental blocks to delegation that prevents them from using this powerful developmental tool. This delegation model challenges these mental blocks so the entire team, manager included, can benefit from delegation.

Session Five
Decision Making
. This segment introduces three decision models that participants can use to make decisions in specific circumstances. All models can be used in a team setting or for an individual decision.

Accountability Conversation. Introduces a results-oriented method to hold individuals and teams accountable for desired results. This combines concepts of Time Span, QQT Goals and Management Relationships.

Session Six
Effective Meetings.
Moves from theory to the practical application of team dynamics. How to run a more effective meeting.

Coaching. This segment takes the communication models we have previously used and integrates them into a conversation specifically designed for coaching subordinates.

If you would like to pre-register for the program, use the Ask Tom link, tell me a little about yourself and we will add you to the pre-registration list.