Planning for Times Like These

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Most “modern” business planning owes a debt to Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor believed that planning was separate from execution and that “superior” people planned, while others did the work.

Most of Taylor’s writing was about the factory. Many business planners seem to have that factory on the brain.

A factory is predictable. Oh, sure, there will be changeovers to deal with new products. There will be innovation in process. But the basic work remains essentially the same. Raw materials in, finished goods out. The goal was efficiency.

That worked for about a century. Taylor’s planning and thinking contributed to a huge improvement in the life of the average person. But a couple of decades ago, the world began to change.

Why the old planning model doesn’t work

Today’s world is less like the predictable and stable factory. It’s more like a trip through uncharted territory. Today’s planners have only the vaguest idea what might be over the next hill. Today you must be ready for anything. The goal should be agility.

Taylor-style planning assumes a predictable future and workers who follow orders. The goal is efficiency. Plan the Taylor way and you’re courting trouble. You could be ambushed by threats you didn’t know existed. Workers who expect autonomy will disengage from the plan you deliver from on high. You won’t be quick enough to seize pop-up opportunities.

Today you must plan for uncertain future and workers used to making decisions. The goal is agility. Here are three suggestions about how to plan differently.

Plan just enough.

Make sure the big objective is clear and people understand the basic strategy for getting to it. Don’t try to plan over a long time horizon. Don’t try to plan in much detail.

Put your trust in the front line.

As Major Donald Mitchell, USMC, said to me, “Those Generals may win a battle or two, but Sergeants win wars.” Trust people to make good decisions. Give them the resources so they can. Let them work.

Review the plan and your current situation frequently.

Make it a habit to keep your head up and in swivel mode. Scan the world, looking for things that may make you change your plan.


Most planning models today are based on a predictable future and workers who follow orders. The goal is efficiency.

Today, we have an uncertain future and workers used to making decisions. The goal should be agility.

Don’t plan too much or too far out and let everyone know the big picture.

Expect and equip frontline workers to make decisions about how to meet the big objective.

Review the world and your plan frequently and adjust as necessary

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What People Are Saying

David Greer   |   03 Jul 2020   |   Reply

Hi Wally,

I believe planning is essential. Especially to high performing businesses.

For it to work, it takes commitment from the business owner/CEO to commit to a process. The process I use with clients is annual planning to look at culture, purpose, overreaching brand promise, and where the company needs to go in the next 3-6 years. Then set 4-5 one-year key initiatives. Finally, set 3-5 concrete goals for the quarter. This is followed up by planning sessions once a quarter to confirm the 3-6 year goals and the key initiatives for the year, while setting new 3-5 goals for the quarter.

In my experience, entrepreneurs try and do too much. They struggle to commit to a set of goals and then stay focused on them for the entire 13 weeks of a quarter and the 12 months of a year.

I have used this process successfully with my own work and with clients over the last five years. For smaller and slower growing businesses, you might be okay with just once-a-year planning.

To me, running a company without a plan is like going sailing without a clear vision of where you are going and what your destination is going to be. Without those, you might have a lot of fun on the water, but you probably won’t get anywhere, and you’ll end up going in circles.



p.s. I just finished up a set of quarterly planning sessions for clients. There were zero changes to those clients 3-6 year goals and only one made one change to their 2020 key initiatives. To me, that shows that they put in the time and thought to be clear of where they are going and why.

Wally Bock   |   07 Jul 2020   |   Reply

Thanks for that detailed comment, David. I see the quarterly planning sessions as critical. I adopted a phrase I learned from Stephen Lynch to describe them: “Rolling Reality Checks.” If you’re checking on your situation and progress every quarter and you know if you need to make some changes and you can act in time to assure those changes help.