Planning Cycles, Thinking Rhythms

July 15, 2007 by
Filed under: Leadership 

I was running a training session with about a dozen executives a couple of months back. These were all people from relatively small companies, so even though by title and role they may face strategic issues most of the day, they still have at least one foot firmly planted in day-to-day issues, and many of them remain more comfortable in a technical environment than a boardroom.

During the opening of the session, as everyone was introducing themselves to the group, I noticed that two people there had a copy of the same book, and another in the group had mentioned something about the book as well. Apparently, a number of them had recently attended another seminar, where the contents of the book were presented. The book was Mastering the Rockerfeller Habits, by Verne Harnish.

The course we were running was a series of workshops on small business success, covering a range of topics from setting up a financial infrastructure to leveraging the range of available Government assistance, do planning and driving successful projects to realize your vision. A key part of the workshops was the one on one sessions we ran with the executives, to take the classroom materials and more directly apply it to each specific scenario.

In one of the sessions, a copy of the Rockefeller Habits was sitting on the desk beside us, and I inquired about it. The person I was working with indicated that this was actually a second copy he had, and offered that I could borrow it for a while.

It turned out to be a quick and engaging read. In essence, the book describes a relatively straightforward system for strategic planning, and is embodied in a 1-page Strategic Plan.
I have seen many different variations on this theme for strategic planning, from Word Documents to PowerPoint decks, and they have a lot in common. There is always discussion of the competition and financial targets, often accompanied by a miraculous hockey-stick growth two or three years out, usually without a sound story explaining how this growth will occur. They often paint a very rosy picture of the future, but provide little support for how to actually get there.

The distinction I see in the Rockerfeller Habits is quite compelling. The structure of the brief strategic plan acknowledges that we need to consider a wide range of planning cycles from the strategic vision down to what we want to get done this week, and we need to synchronize them. They all need to fit together concentrically, like so many Russian Matryoshka dolls. Strategically, they start with Core Values and Beliefs, and wind down through a set of Quarterly actions and themes that we can implement as a means of working toward our goals and achieving our visions. Getting any more detailed than quarterly issues in the context of strategic planning doesn’t make much sense, so it is appropriate that it stops there. It would be impossible to provide a generic structure for daily operations across a wide range of domains, anyways. Layered on top of his system is a metrics model that sets specific expectations, and is based on historical performance. Nice.

This is a wonderful complement to the concentric planning cycles that are discussed in the agile community these days. Whether the straightforward representation from Scrum of the 30 day sprints and daily scrums or the more involved eight concentric cycles shown in Extreme Programming, the idea is the same. More Matryoshka dolls, in a very detailed sense. These cycles fit very nicely inside those of the Strategic Plan above, and indeed, many agile implementations I have seen would benefit from extending the metaphor upward.

We need to recognize the value of planning and behaving in the context of this range of perspectives. Knowing our overall strategic objectives and being able to map them down in a planning exercise is a very powerful way of achieving our goals. When we are explicit about identifying each of these perspectives, we can ensure they are aligned, improving our chances for success. With all of the steps captured, we have an approach that is a basis for discussion and debate, and we can identify not only what our big fat audacious goals are, but what steps we are going to take to get there. We consciously remove the ‘and then a miracle happens’ steps in our business plans.

In our day-to-day activities, we need to ensure that we take the time to focus at each of these different levels of planning, that we recognize the different thinking rhythms that are needed to achieve the long-terms. This is not to say that each of us splits our day across the different levels, but someone in the organization has to take charge for each level, to ensure that it is clear and well communicated, and that it meshes with the levels below and above it. At the highest level, senior management will drive the overall direction, while at the lowest level (especially if we extend the metaphor down to the daily level) we all as individuals need to ensure that what we are doing contributes to this overall direction.

Any gap in the spectrum of these thinking rhythms can lead to problems. Where are the gaps in your organization? – JB

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