How to Plan when Everything Keeps Changing
In order to succeed and grow, businesses must create plans. A good plan is vital to directing the long-term trajectory of an organization. Startups create business plans to show to investors, and larger companies may have numerous plans at different organizational levels– on the macro level there is an enterprise-wide strategic plan; at the department level there might be a marketing plan, a plan to attract and retain employees, and so on; and at the micro level there might be various plans for specific projects and initiatives.
All of these multiple plans have goals – things they hope to achieve. However, they are all vulnerable to unexpected disruptions that can throw everything off-course.
The origin of the word “plan” comes from the concept of a map (1). A good plan is a lot like a good map – it is a tool that helps you get from where you currently are to where you want to be.
The problem with traveling, just like planning, is that unexpected problems arise. Traffic jams, construction, unexpected detours… these things can disrupt your travels and prevent you from reaching your destination.
So too in business planning, it is rare that everything goes exactly as expected. A more realistic assumption is to accept that everything is always changing. Haimes (2) describes the constantly shifting landscape of assumptions underlying our decisions as “the evolving base”, including the following factors:
1. Goals and objectives
2. Stakeholders, decision makers, and interest groups
3. Organizational, political, and budgetary baselines
4. Reorganization and reallocation of key personnel
5. Requirements, specifications, delivery, users, and clients
So what do we do when things don’t go as planned? In the travel example, we can use better maps. Instead of old-fashioned paper maps, the maps on our phone can point us to alternate routes in case of a traffic jam. Additionally, they can give us routes that are aligned with our goals. Do we want the shortest route? Do we want to avoid tolls? Do we want to take a scenic detour? Modern mapping apps give us flexibility in choosing routes and adapt to changing traffic conditions.
Like the maps on our phones, our strategic plans need to also be flexible and adaptable, all while keeping the ultimate goals in mind. This requires establishing a goal, monitoring progress toward that goal, and identifying when things are going awry. When the unexpected arises, as it will inevitably do, the plan needs to be resistant to disruptions, able to quickly course-correct, and have the flexibility to achieve the goal in multiple alternative ways.
This requires envisioning scenarios that could happen and thinking about what mitigations can be potentially put in place to reduce the impacts of disruptions to the plan. It also involves scanning the horizon for indicators that signal a disruption is about to occur. Finally, it requires not only being able to mitigate the downsides of changes to “the evolving base”, but creatively thinking about how to benefit from opportunities brought about by a changing environment.
Collier Research Systems (www.collierresearchsystems.com) can help you through the task of evaluating an existing plan, formulating a new one, and identifying potential disruptions to the plan.
(2) Haimes, Y.Y. 2012. Systems-based guiding principles for risk modeling, planning, assessment, management, and communication. Risk Analysis, 32(9), 1451-1467.