Allocating Time to Planning

Implementing planning often begins with attempts to schedule planning meetings This requires giving a planning event first priority in scheduling even if it is perceived as not urgent. The juxtaposition of “urgent” versus “important” is a key concept in Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The description of the concept made me realize that the distinct quality present in successful businesses and absent in Covey Quadrantsfailed businesses was the allocation of time to important issues (allowing the business to make quality decisions and implement planning) even though those issues did not present as urgent. In the book, Covey states: “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” Covey proposes the use of a time quadrant for scheduling. For business planning, we want to be in Quadrant II where items are important but not urgent. Where your schedule displaces planning items with urgent not important items, the decision-making procedure of the business is interrupted and stalled. When your priority is urgent over important and your schedule prioritizes the schedule of others, the fault line widens.

I find it difficult to make a priority quadrant review for items on my schedule. Yes, I know, this is exactly what allows the urgent but not important items to dominate the important but not urgent items on my schedule. I confess to this fault but know I am not alone. (Covey and others have developed systems to add the discipline of avoiding scheduling urgent over the important.) No matter how disciplined some may be, allowing the continuity of planning to depend on the scheduling of planning items over urgent items will cause an interruption of the planning (decision-making) process. The allocation of time to planning (decision-making) cannot depend on the whims of scheduling, even where some schedulers may use discipline and systems of scheduling to prevent urgent items from overwhelming important items, most will not.

If a planning meeting is scheduled and the invited attendees know it is not urgent, urgent items will pop up to cause last-minute absences to soothe unforeseen disputes or perform tasks that no one else seems able to do. This phenomenon explains the popularity of retreats or early morning planning meetings where the demands of urgent unanticipated items are less strident. But the concept of having to schedule specific times for planning leads to another fault line opening – planning time must be allocated continually with the right people in the room doing the right things at the right time.

 Planning must have a continual time allocation for all who are involved. Planning is a group of decisions. These decisions involve more than one person. To set goals, data must be reviewed and analyzed. To attain the goals action must be put in place by executive management and monitoring must be done in a transparent fashion so all can see the progress to the goal. When the goal is clearly unattainable, as most of the time it will be, the revision must occur with the goal reset and the management response being to take new action and monitoring such that the process repeats itself and does not stall. The decision-making procedure needs to be occurring regularly among the right people (not the same people) on a timely basis. Moreover, the decisions may be operational (short-term) or strategic (long-term) and the people involved may be different but the decision-making needs to be continual and involve the people with the right authority.

 If the allocation of time to planning is hit or miss – that is to say subject to scheduling - the planning process will stall. Starting the decision-making process over after a stall is far more difficult than continuing the process. Meanwhile, decisions are not being made and planning is not implemented.

 In a dynamic planning process, where policy decision-making on strategic goals is integrated with the acts of executive management to attain goals and the progress toward a goal is monitored with milestones and metrics, the format of the plan is the key planning component. The format notifies executive management of the need to make decisions about attaining new or revised goals. The format notifies policy-makers of the actions taken by executive management to attain the goal and the means of monitoring those actions. The format presents monitoring information to all relevant parties so that goals are revised or added as needed. This same format provides the means by which the right people know to allocate time to the exercise of the decision-making process. When the plan format indicates the need for a decision, the culture and discipline of the business should cause that need to be met as an important but also urgent event with an appropriate time allocation, and the format should cause the decision-making process to initiate and result in a decision - a necessary change to the plan.

Each business has different needs and the plan format will differ. The plan format will usually be a way to display information to relevant parties. It often is one or more spreadsheets or charts. It could be a software program or an app. No matter the manifestation, the format should be in continual use, and the knowledge imparted by the format should be adequate to cause the requisite allocation of time by the right people to engage in the decision-making process without delay. The culture and discipline of the business should be to react to the knowledge imparted by the plan format and carry on a constant decision-making policy activity with the right people making the right decisions at the right time.

When Strategic Planning Does Not Help – Issues of Time, Execution, and Revision

The effectiveness of the strategic plan depends on the amount of time it takes to go through the decision-making process, the prompt execution of the actions necessary for the goal to be realized, and the ability to revise or supplement decisions as needed. Adding these elements to a static strategic plan format will transform it into a dynamic plan format, which will allow the realization of the full benefit of strategic planning.

 An examination of the planning process provides insight into the implementation of a dynamic plan format. A plan is a grouping of relevant decisions. These decisions involve setting a goal (long-term or strategic planning), a description of actions to be taken (short-term or operational planning), and a description of milestones (or metrics) to measure progress toward the goal. These decisions are documented in writing. The documentation of the decisions, while essential, should not be in a format that will delay or hinder the communication of the decision.

The Biggest Mistake Made in Implementing Strategic Planning

If you own a private business, if your business has a strategic plan, and if that plan is in a three-ring notebook on a shelf, you have already made the biggest mistake that can be made in implementing strategic planning.

The biggest (and most common) mistake involving strategic planning is that the planning process is not viewed as a dynamic process integrated with the operating plan (front line or productive) process of the business. This mistake involves a number of conceptual errors involved in implementing the planning process. To understand the errors, we must start with what the strategic plan traditionally has been and then look at the basis of the planning process – the decision-making process.

Traditionally, strategic plans have been the product of retreats. Once a year – or maybe every few years - there is a retreat (or a meeting dealing with long-term issues). At the retreat there are many things said about long-term planning, some of them are written down, and someone is tasked to write some of the thoughts as a strategic plan. There might be goals in the plan along with general references to action planning that would take place. The plan is presented to the Board (or other policy-making entity), approved, and then at some point set aside to eventually reside on the shelf in a three-ring notebook. Of course, this is better than the many businesses that simply do not bother with a strategic plan. This article assumes the value of strategic planning, but suffice it to say that strategic planning can make a business successful when otherwise it may fail, especially with regard to owner relationships. Moreover, you may succeed without a strategic plan, but you will not realize as great a success as you would with strategic planning.