'Hindsight is 20/20' isn't just a common phrase – it’s a poignant description of the year we’ve been through. Use the opportunity of this year’s hindsight to leverage inflection points that will help your business become a strategic powerhouse.
The experiences from 2020 have taught companies around the globe many things. One of the most important: our planning cycles were not just wrong and ineffective — they were wasteful. Whether yours is a large or a small company, well-recognized or unknown, publicly traded or private, this lesson is universally applicable. It also represents an opportunity to leverage this inflection point and doing so will help your business transcend traditional planning cycles to become a strategic powerhouse. Very quickly your company's prosperity will rest on how quickly it can adapt to quarterly, monthly, and even continuous planning cycles.
The flaw with annual planning
The pandemic upended just about everything. Many companies had annual budgets that were not just blown out of the water – they changed rapidly because the environment was full of unknowns. Setting clear plans was nearly impossible, too – instead, we had to make the best decisions day-to-day and be prepared for any scenario. It became clear to me, and many others, that creating strategic plans in standalone tools such as PowerPoint or Excel don’t keep an organization aligned in purpose, don’t help it adapt to change, and can’t foster agility. Besides, before all this change, we rarely referred back to our annual with any regularity, anyway.
The truth is, annual planning has typically been flawed because it often assumes a reality that is three to five years out — and while we’ve always known our predictions aren’t always right, we could reasonably get by through face-to-face collaboration that happened in offices daily. The pandemic forced most of that to change. Collaboration paradigms shifted on a dime as offices closed, budgets had to change because of operational costs and resourcing constraints, change just kept exposing itself as time went on.
It wasn’t just the way we went about annual planning that had too many flaws for today’s world – but the annual nature of it in the first place. Planning can’t be dictated by the calendar, because change isn’t on a timeline. It must be something that happens in the regular rhythm of business to mirror the change you’re trying to manage.
Obstacles resulting from changes
In working with customers in the last year, I observed a broad range of obstacles across the finance, communication, and people side of things. In the traditional working environment (pre-COVID), you were probably in an office; and chances are you had a whiteboard that laid out portfolio information. In my office, we managed a huge board, had our stand-ups around it, and talked about what would happen for the week. A lot of that changed. You had to work out how to have those daily stand-ups or conversations about your portfolio — but remotely. And without the whiteboard.
The impact on traditional planning cycles
Throughout the pandemic – work, operational, and project environments have changed significantly. Competition and access to people have changed. Goals have had to change, sometimes scaled back, becoming more defined and achievable. This has put everyone into reactive mode; previous lofty three-to-five-year goals have had to be broken down into short little sprints that can be achieved more swiftly. Adapting requires a shift in planning cycles, from the traditional one-, three-, and five-year plans to one, three, and six-month plans. Now, survival requires companies to become less reactive and more proactive.
What does a shift away from annual strategic planning look like?
For the majority of my career, the company’s board of directors would set our mission and goals around everything that the company want to achieve for the next year — and then that would disseminate out into the organization and operations. Now, strategic goals and planning are happening almost organically with the entire organization getting involved. Things that were long considered trivial, are no longer so simple. In our new normal we’re more likely to be focused on things like:
- Taking care of our people.
- Digital transformation strategies.
- How teams and customers are going to communicate in the future.
- Identifying ramifications of reopening the office(s).
- The ways and means to maintaining healthy remote relationships.
All of this and more fold into strategic planning and how we're going to operate as an organization that can embrace the future.
Traditional strategic planning cycles are risky
Maintaining an annual planning cycle means there's a higher chance of becoming stagnant. Government agencies and larger institutions will be impacted the most; due to their size and bureaucracy, they're typically forced to do annual planning and are least likely to be able to shift how they plan and respond to changes. Conversely, the biotech industry is rapid; they're changing their model about their thinking on portfolios and products. When larger organizations start to decompose old ways of working, improve organizational agility, and plan more regularly – they're going to begin to see the benefits.
Without the ability to adapt to change quickly, companies will have a difficult time surviving. Competitors will get to market a lot faster and increase market share, cutting into revenue streams. Many businesses are still doing annual planning, but in my experience, most of those same companies have to rethink their goals and adapt strategy the moment their annual plans are finalized.
As internal and external changes occur and priorities change, planning has to shift quickly to match. Many organizations are intrigued when I start talking about prioritization; they think it's complicated and overlook prioritizing beyond leadership preferences. Traditionally, once opportunities have been identified, everybody says that they've prioritized goals, but what I'm finding is that most times, nobody prioritizes. As an example, for product development, let's say you have all your initiatives prioritized — and then there's a change, such as the pandemic; now you've got to reprioritize while working from home. First, you need remote support that fits within your IT infrastructure. You also need to identify the most critical work that needs to continue and what work needs to stop. Suddenly, all the priorities you had set previously have gone out the window and you have to decide what’s next immediately.
Increasing visibility and reducing waste
Shorter, and in some cases continuous, planning cycles help your leadership team become a strategic powerhouse with increased visibility around organizational objectives that adapt as the business adapts. It reduces time-waste, costs, and resource churn. This has driven more interest in Lean and Agile practices, but it’s important to get your people working on the right things first, and then Lean and Agile frameworks to drive organizational agility will start to make more sense. If you can't move and change on a dime, you're not only going to lose business but you’re also likely to lose valuable people — making business outcomes even more difficult to achieve.
Steps to becoming a strategic powerhouse
Remain locked into what's happening
When it comes to organizations overall and Project Management Offices (PMOs), I think there's a need to be more locked into what's happening on the financial side rather than the department-to-department bubbles and siloed projects. Companies need to move strategy from PowerPoint presentations, whiteboards, Excel spreadsheets — or any other tool that provides a presentation of a non-collaborative static strategy – to a space that is transparent, adaptable, and purpose-built for organizational planning and execution.
Make the shift beyond annual planning
We're at a state right now whereby we've existed in chaos, and we're going to see a lot of transformation balancing out to allow organizations to focus on the urgent and the important. Over the last year, everything was urgent; now, things are moderating. Planning will be about identifying what's truly critical and how it ties to investments that achieve success in the market.
Planning needs to be something that happens all the time; it should be a continuous process that's always being discussed. It's not just the board or executive leadership, but rather the entire organization talking about increasing operational efficiency and generating ideas. I see this need more and more as customers come to Changepoint looking for a place to transparently document strategy where the organization can continuously collaborate on ideas and demands.
Faster responses to change drive better business outcomes
Success is about delivering a strategy faster than ever — and the plans to get there can’t be hidden in a folder somewhere. The strategy needs to be in front of your organization every day. People in these strategy and transformation roles need to continue to make sure that the organization is mapping to strategic plans and driving collective objectives. They'll need to keep their feet on the gas pedal to ensure things don't slow back down, remembering to stay focused on driving value. More frequent planning allows your company to continuously rethink what's being done to drive value within your company and for its customers — and establishes it as a strategic powerhouse capable of withstanding change, uncertainty — and even chaos.