Why corporate planning must change: a Q&A on Workfront’s new Scenario Planner

A person sits at their desk on a laptop, using Workfront's Scenario Planner application

Michael Swan, Director of Product Management, answers a few questions about Scenario Planner, a new Workfront application:

Q: How is the current state of business changing the way companies approach planning?

A: The traditional corporate strategic planning process was a formal, (usually) annual process that required extensive data and took months to complete. Once finished, the plans were then relayed to various teams for execution. This worked fine when most companies produced goods with a well-defined start and finish, and employees performed a specific function within a hierarchical structure.

The digitization and automation of business have transformed not only the speed at which we work, but how we work. Hierarchies have flattened and linear practices with defined beginnings and ends have all but disappeared. For example, software developers—and increasingly other parts of organizations—have adopted Agile principles, which include the practice of “continuous planning,” where planning is more of an open-ended process that can respond nimbly to change.

There are also cultural factors that are driving the need for companies to change the way they plan. Today, employees show up to work with very different expectations. They want transparency and context from leadership. And work itself is no longer the hero. Employees want to know that their day-to-day activity is contributing to something important to the business. These differently engaged employees can be tremendous assets to their companies when leaders actively solicit their input and consistently communicate where, how, and why they are working toward specific outcomes—especially when the “how” changes.

Q: What are the challenges of this new “continuous planning” approach?

A: To be clear, moving from an annual, or even quarterly planning cadence to a more nimble model isn’t really a choice anymore; it’s a necessity. It also comes with challenges. Traditional planning attempted to anticipate or forecast every eventuality with data and analysis and produce complicated road maps with time-bound milestones. As the current environment is reminding us, despite our best efforts, companies can’t possibly forecast most of the events, reactions, crises or opportunities coming their way. Creating highly detailed plans takes too long and prevents leaders and teams from responding quickly and well.

The secret to planning in the (disrupted) digital age is in having just enough of the right kind of information at the right time, in a format that can be easily understood and communicated. It isn’t about being able to predict the future or an outcome. It’s about having what you need to drive toward an outcome, while at the same time anticipating the road ahead and having the ability to continue to respond appropriately. Companies need a Google Maps planning framework. Google Maps, like continuous planning, keeps you pointed toward your destination, visualizing new information as it arises, presenting “what-if” options, and enabling you to share the new route with people invested in your journey.

Q: How does Workfront’s new Scenario Planner application support more flexible planning?

A: The inspiration for Scenario Planner came from a common pain point we heard from our customers: resource management. Few customers felt they were doing resource management well, and they didn’t have a clear idea of how to leverage technology to change that.

At first we experimented with all kinds of ways to “MacGyver” the Workfront platform to solve the problem. And while we were able paper-clip-and-duct-tape our way to a semi-solution, it was incredibly complicated and just plain hard. When the cure is at least as bad as—or even worse than—the disease, that’s not a formula for success. Out of this process we learned something very important: Good planning doesn’t need to be perfect; it needs to be simple, fast, and shareable.

As an enterprise work management platform with strategic planning tools available, Workfront already had access to the right financial and resource capacity data to generate, visualize, and communicate scenarios. Working with our customers, we built and refined Scenario Planner to address the specific needs of larger enterprises.

Jen Krempa, Executive Director of strategic planning and administration at Penn State University, was a beta customer and early adopter of Scenario Planner. For Jen and her team, who are heading up a massive transformation initiative for Penn State’s online campus, Scenario Planner is key in helping them make smart, responsive pivots as they continue to execute toward big objectives. Here’s her perspective:

“As the world continues to change and unexpected factors arise, we’re constantly making small and large adjustments to our plans. Scenario Planner will make it much easier to quickly understand the impact of a single adjustment across all of our work, to compare scenarios, and to align our resources to the outcomes that matter most. At the end of the day, it will enable us to make smart, responsive decisions more quickly and easily.”