Real planning is hard work. I’m not talking about the traditional—get the management team together, offsite for a few hours or days and spell out a modified mission and vision statement and some basic goals and objectives—this is the typical approach. Rather, I am referring to thinking and planning about the future with a sense of urgency, realism, and genuine impact to the way we do our jobs.
In the traditional approach, the management team is focused on the planning session. They are engaged in the planning for a short duration, but when back in the office, they don’t go back in any meaningful way to either refer to or apply the plan in what they or their employees actually do. The plan in essence defaults to simply a paperwork exercise, an alignment mechanism, a check box for the next audit.
In contrast, in a comprehensive planning approach, the focus is not on the planning session itself, but on the existential threats and opportunities that we can envision that can impact on the organization and what we are going to do about it. We need to look at for example: What are our competitors doing? Are there new product innovations emerging? Are there social and economic trends that will affect how we do business? How is the political and regulatory environment changing? And so on. The important thing is to think through/ work through, the impact analysis and plan accordingly to meet these head-on.
This is similar to a SWOT analysis—where we evaluate our Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, but it differs in that it extends that analysis portion to story planning (my term), where the results of SWOT are used to imagine and create multifaceted stories or scenarios of what we anticipate will happen and then identify how we will capitalize on the new situation or counter any threats. In other words, we play out the scenario —similar to simulation and modeling—in a safe environment, and evaluate our best course of action, by seeing where the story goes, how the actors behave and react, and introducing new layers of complexity and subtext.
Harvard Business Review (HBR), Jan-Feb 2010, has an article called “Strategy Tools for a Shifting Landscape” by Michael Jacobides that states “in an age when nothing is constant, strategy should be defined by narrative—plots, subplots, and characters—rather than by maps, graphs, and numbers.”
The author proposes the use of “playscripts” (his term), a scenario-based approach for planning, in which—“a narrative that sets out the cast of characters in a business, the way in which they are connected, the rules they observe, the plots and subplots in which they are a part, and how companies create and retain value as the business and the cast changes.
While I too believe in using a qualitative type of planning to help think out and flesh out strategy, I do not agree that we should discard the quantitative and visual analysis—in fact, I think we should embrace it and expand upon it by integrating it into planning itself. This way we optimize the best from both quantitative and qualitative analysis.
While numbers, trends, graphics, and other visuals are important information elements in planning, they are even more potent when added to the “what if” scenarios in a more narrative type of planning. For example, based on recent accident statistics with the car accelerators (a quantifiable and graphical analysis), we may anticipate that a major foreign car company will be conducting a major recall and that the government will be conducting investigations into this company. How will we respond—perhaps, we will we increase our marketing emphasizing our own car safety record and increase production in anticipation of picking up sales from our competitor?
Aside from being robust and plausible, the article recommends that playscripts be:
· Imaginative—“exploring all the opportunities that exist.” I would also extend this to the other relevant element of SWOT and include envisioning possible threats as well.
· Outward-facing—“focus on the links a company has with other entities, the way it connects with them and how others perceive it in the market.” This is critical to take ourselves out of our insular environments and look outside at what is going on and how it will affect us. Of course, we cannot ignore the inner dynamics of our organization, but we must temper it with a realization that we function within a larger eco-system.
To me, the key to planning is to free the employees to explore what is happening in their environment and how they will behave. It is not to regurgitate their functions and what they are working on, but rather to see beyond themselves and their current capabilities and attitudes. Life today is not life tomorrow, and we had better be prepared with open minds, sharpened skills and a broad arsenal to deal with the future that is soon upon us.