Strategic planning in uncertain times

David Braziel

HOW do you plan for the year ahead when so much is uncertain? How do we establish a strategy when the landscape and rules are changing around us daily?

It's a challenge. But by adopting a layered approach to planning, measuring, and adapting, there are ways to prepare ourselves for whatever 2021 has in store.

When the world around us is so chaotic, it's tempting to throw up our hands and declare that planning is futile. How can we plan for our businesses, communities, or personal lives when so much is unknown? But turbulent times are when we most need a clear course to steer by and a clear set of objectives to hold our focus.

Dwight D Eisenhower and Winston Churchill are both credited with almost identical quotations about the complexity of planning in warfare. Eisenhower put it like this: "In preparing for battle, plans are useless, but planning is indispensable". This sounds contradictory but means we should build our plans, put time and energy into strategy and set our objectives for the year ahead, but we mustn't get too attached to the plan itself.

We have to keep reviewing and be ready to rethink the plans when the world around us changes.

A robust, plan will be multi-layered and based on fundamental principles, building up through objectives to create a specific set of actions. These actions will undoubtedly need to adapt and change over the coming year, but the fundamental building blocks should rarely change.

By creating a structured process for planning, measuring, and adapting to change, we can all put our businesses into the best possible position to react to whatever new challenges 2021 has in store. The building blocks of a good plan are: purpose, strategy, objectives, results and actions.

Everyone should be clear about why your business exists and what its purpose is. It's useful to start every planning session by restating this. Use your purpose as the bedrock on which to build.

Having agreed your purpose, you need to decide how you will achieve. Your strategy should set out what broad targets you intend to accomplish this year to help you fulfil your purpose.

This is where the flexibility and focus are introduced and also where plans usually start to break up into individual department or divisional objectives.

Each department in your organisation should have only two or three quarterly objectives at a time. These should be qualitative (not numbers) and include things like "Increase Sales", "Improve Customer Satisfaction" or "Add feature x to the Product". Objectives must also be owned by named individuals who have the authority and resources to drive them to completion.

Alongside every objective, there must be a way of measuring progress or a set of "Key Results". These should be specific, challenging, but achievable, and relevant to the objective.

A useful question to ask when choosing key results is: "What will success look like?" The most successful measures usually refer to high-level outcomes like profitability or quality of service, not low-level inputs like numbers of transactions or short-term gains.

Having established your objectives and a clear vision of what success looks like you can now focus in on the specific daily activities that will help you to achieve them. While completing these actions, you must keep monitoring results, reacting to events, and developing new ideas or approaches.

By maintaining a fixed purpose, an annual strategy, quarterly objectives and key results and weekly or daily tasks you will have the structure, focus, and direction you need while remaining flexible enough to react quickly to change when you need to.

:: David Braziel is technical director at Decision Time, an Antrim-headquartered provider of cloud-based software which makes it easier for organisations to practice good governance, risk management and strategic performance management

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