Honey, I shrunk the planning cycle

Someone sits at a desk using the Workfront Scenario Planner application

This article originally appeared on Forbes, where Alex Shootman is a guest author and member of the Forbes Technology Council—an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs, and technology executives.

First, we thought of the changes to the way we work as a sprint, then as a marathon and then as a 100-mile endurance race — but in reality, it’s becoming a long journey for every business.

That’s the sharp insight a fellow CEO shared with me recently during a conversation about planning for change when change happens all the time. The answer is to think differently about the planning cycle and the alignment of people, time and money.

The old planning cycle

Before 2020, most leaders had faith in the power of a spreadsheet; the patterns revealed in data and increasingly sophisticated forecasting to push the time horizon of the planning cycle farther and farther out. Leaders would point to where the flag in the ground would be in a year’s time, and everyone in the business would start running hard and fast in that general direction.

Then, along came a pandemic that saw 96% of U.S. B2B organizations revamp their go-to-market sales model practically overnight, according to McKinsey. Suddenly, predicting what tomorrow would look like — let alone next quarter or next year — seemed impossible.

Constant recalibration of the journey

What I’m seeing now is companies replanning work on the fly. They are running and comparing scenarios and making smart decisions quickly to adapt to ongoing market shifts, mitigate risk and stay ahead of the competition. What they have understood is that the destination is the hero, not the journey. They are constantly prepared to recalibrate their journey to get there.

Let’s compare the old cycle to the new. Let’s start with the old cycle, which had the following qualities:

• Timeframe:  Prescriptive and defined quarterly or annually.

• Technology:  Set actions defined in presentations/spreadsheets.

• Goals:  Outputs.

The new cycle looks a bit different:

• Timeframe:  Highly iterative on a daily, hourly or weekly basis.

• Technology:  Hypothesis-testing and real-time views enabled by enterprise work management solutions and applications.

• Goals:  Outcomes.

Different iterative models

New, condensed planning cycles are being organized around different iterative models. One is the objectives and key results (OKR) model introduced to Google by John Doerr, who describes the process in his book  Measure What Matters. He gives the simple definition: “I will (objective name) as measured by (a set of key results).”

Think of the objective in OKRs as a strategic goal — a broad, overarching, qualitative headline of what is to be achieved. The objective’s key results resemble key performance indicators (KPIs). KRs can be metrics or measurable milestones that benchmark over time how the objective will be achieved.

I describe another iterative model in my book_, Done Right_, which was based on insights from customers and collaborators over many years. You start with a compass-point question: a simple question that captures what your goal is all about — for example, “Will it allow us to create and keep customers?”

You then need to break down your goal into key initiatives, milestones and best next actions (BNAs). Key initiatives are projects or actions that take an organization closer to the goal. Each key initiative breaks down farther still into smaller actions: milestones. As the name suggests, these are the five or six way-markers of progress that help show how far you are moving toward completion of each key initiative.

Then comes the discipline of asking about the best next action: “What are we going to do next?” or “What are we going to do within the next two weeks to take us closer to our goal?”

A third model comes from Patrick Lencioni’s book,  The Advantage. Lencioni proposes that a leadership team should answer six questions around which all decisions, goals, tasks, meetings should be centered and focused:

1. Why do we exist?

2. How do we behave?

3. What do we do?

4. How will we succeed?

5. What is most important, right now?

6. Who must do what?

What all three models have in common is that they are contractive rather than expansive — they look to break down and focus plans on what’s important right now.

The new feedback loop

The condensed planning cycle is encouraging leaders to adopt a more consultative mindset. And that’s a mirror image of what their teams believe is needed. It also reflects the “test and adjust” nature of today’s digital economy. From top to bottom of the business, the dynamic of feedback is changing in a productive way.

When operational decision-making is being informed by insight across the org chart, it’s more than a big behavioral shift. It imbues work at all levels with the satisfaction of knowing how it connects to what the company is trying to achieve. Everyone has clarity on how their work matters.

Treat work as a business-critical asset

Planning what and how work gets done is as critical a question for leaders as financial management or sales. But it’s not just a question for leaders. Today, it’s a question that the wisdom across the whole organization can help to answer in real-time and at a pace that was previously inconceivable.

I’m reminded of a speech President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave back in 1957 recalling some old Army wisdom: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.” We’re still living through the truth of that today.