What Makes Planning Work?

“There are dreamers and there are planners;

the planners make their dreams come true.”

                     – Edwin Louis Cole

I recently conducted a planning session with a Board of Directors, representing many years of experience leading organizations across multiple industries. I began the session by asking “what makes planning work?” They were quick to respond and reach consensus on their insights. Here is what makes planning work for them:

Reality – a good plan starts with understanding a company’s environment and capabilities. To reach understanding, everyone involved in planning must be brutally honest when assessing current conditions, including opportunities, resources, and capacity to change. That is, differentiating reality from what it is, versus what you want it to be. “Let’s think this through,” “get the skunks on the table,” “what’s the elephant in the room,” are common phrases we should hear when planning … all good reality checks. So, schedule time to plan.

Discipline – planning is a continuous yet simple process of Think-Decide-Act, coupled with Monitor & Adjust. If plans fail, as they sometimes do, it is often because companies veer from the dynamic process when unexpected events occur. That is, they react rather than respond, make changes based on feelings rather than facts, and accept excuses for why objectives are unachievable. In other words, they don’t follow through on the process with realistic (and perhaps difficult) adjustments … they give up. However, successful companies trust the process, follow through on all key steps, and don’t make excuses.

Communication – the adage “the devil is in the details” is particularly true for planning. Goals, objectives, tasks, etc., must be crystal clear, and accountabilities must be specific and reasonable. The language of communication is equally important, e.g., how one person interprets a “stretch” goal may be entirely different from another’s, and must be tested for understanding and buy-in. Additionally, plans should be communicated frequently and in various ways (e.g., in writing, verbally, in groups, one-on-one conversations, etc.). To use another adage, “repetition is the mother of learning,” and planning is certainly a learning process.

Planning, of course, is essential to both individual and business growth. When a company has a planning process and a plan to follow, it is well-equipped to handle the complexity, change, and distractions it will surely encounter on the way to success. A good plan also unites team members toward common goals and allows them to be part of the future. Most importantly, planning helps leaders focus on what’s important, so they can achieve the results they expect.