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How to dribble your business planning in COVID

What Covid Teaches Us About Effective Business Planning
goalkeeper diving for ball with face mask on
| Gareth Payne | Strategy

If Coronavirus taught us anything, it’s that looking at our choices in isolation seldom delivers the best results. From very early in 2020 it became clear that we not only have to look after ourselves but must also consider how our actions affect around us.

Just look at Dominic Cumming’s trip to Durham and Barnard Castle as a case in point, or at the thousands that turned out to protest in the US, or at the thousands of visitors that overran our own beaches during summer 2020. All of these choices had ramifications and at the time of writing, over 100,000 people have sadly succumbed to the virus.

Amidst all the chocolate, nibbles and tipples, Christmas 2020 gave me an opportunity to stop and reflect on what we could learn from our response to COVID-19 and how we could apply that lesson to the workplace – specifically around strategic planning.

Let's have a quick look.

Getting ready. “It’ll never happen to us”.

COVID-19 Repsonse

We knew COVID-19 would inevitably reach the UK. We saw frightening news reports from across the world, especially in Northern Italy, France and Spain. We saw how contagious the virus was, and how much of an impact it was having on these countries and their healthcare systems, yet we didn’t seem to take these facts into account to adequately prepare ourselves. While there was a national call for businesses to help make ventilators and ventilator components, the call rang out only after the shortage of critical equipment became a serious concern.

What we can learn

It’s clear that planning is key and that timelines play an important role. Even though we love the Fire Services here at InPhase, it’s far better to be the Boy Scout and be prepared than to be the beleaguered firefighter, reacting to emergencies after they happen.

Many businesses plan their corporate strategies for the medium term and refresh it on an annual basis. And while that’s usually a good idea, they often neglect to integrate that new corporate strategy into their other strategic planning framework’s dependencies, such as when setting budgets, planning actions and discussing personal development. That oversight can lead to their updated strategy being led by business planning rather than by their priorities and goals, which in turn means that by the end of Year 2 there can be complete mismatch between strategy, finance, and business plans.

Alignment. “One size needs to fit all”.

COVID-19 Response

Throughout the epidemic, we’ve seen much ‘firefighting’ from the government, typified by delayed decisions and frequent U-turns. We weren’t presented with a unified approach for the United Kingdom and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each determined their own rules and regulations, causing confusion and frustration at best, and dangerous rule-bending or flouting of the rules at worst - especially by some of those living close to a border.

What we can learn

When working towards a common goal then, whether it’s delivering a strategic plan or eradicating COVID-19, it’s important that each stakeholder conform to the requirements and templates in place.

The key here is to ensure that stakeholders have a vested interest in compliance through input and negotiation rather than being enforced – or in deciding on their own approach. Sometimes stakeholders are faced with lots of slightly different templates that were altered from the original design to better suit how a specific stakeholder wanted to write their own plan. Before you know it, there’s a whole slew of them - and none of them work for the business as a whole.

Of course, the buck has to stop somewhere along the way, but if stakeholders are engaged then compliance is usually much higher. Without that engagement, stakeholders will often adapt things to their own purposes, which then dilutes the entire idea of a single, unified approach.

Learning from past experiences.

COVID-19 Response

It was clear that in many cases, we were playing catch-up with our response to COVID-19 instead of being on the crest of the wave – or even ahead of the curve. And compared to other countries’ responses, we didn’t make timely, evidence-based decisions, which arguably created a much bigger problem for us to deal with.

What we can learn

The message here is to review what’s been used before and improve it where necessary, based on the lessons we’ve learnt along the way. There’s little benefit in continuing to do things the same way, simply because “that’s how we always do it,” or in failing to do something that’s demonstrably worked well elsewhere. Therefore, just as internal feedback and adaptation are important, so too is the ability to learn from successful approaches taken by similar sectors.

Implementing new approaches always comes with an element of risk, but a clear risk assessment will help you determine whether it’s a risk worth taking (and don’t forget to include it on your risk register!).

The importance of the “Golden Thread” and business planning

Strategic planning is best tackled with a top-down approach, not as an “accordion effect”, and certainly not from the bottom up. During my many years spent working in the public sector, my mantra towards business planning as always been Down for “What”, Up for “How”.

The strategic planning pyramid below tries to demonstrate this two-way process (although different businesses may need more or fewer tiers).

Coloured pyramid exmplaing the different stages of strategic planning from corporate down to individual planning.

We can use various analogies to describe business planning, but one of my favourites involves sports.

In both football and basketball (and presumably some other sports as well), dribbling is what the players do to move the ball in the right direction. It’s not the point of the game. It doesn’t score baskets or goals, but it’s an important skill. So dribbling is a means to an end, and not an end it itself.

Planning works the same way in that the point of it is to deliver results and run a busines - it’s not about the plan itself. Good planning is measured by the decisions it creates. It is about managing, allocating resources and accountability.

Think of the moment when a player gets the ball at the wrong end of the court or field. In basketball, the tall player gets the ball and gives it to the one who normally dribbles it up the court, or in football, the goalkeeper gets the ball and passes it to a defender. At that moment, in a well-coached team:

  1. There’s a plan in place, and
  2. The player knows the plan but is empowered to change the plan instantly depending on how the play develops.

When done right, business planning is very much like that.

The existence of a plan - take the ball up the side, pass it to the centre etc - helps the team know what ought to happen, and although changes are expected, the game plan doesn’t lock the players into doing the wrong thing or prevent them from responding to developments. It helps them make choices instantly and changing the plan correctly…and when they do, the other players can better anticipate the next step because of the plan.

Dribbling involves simultaneously looking up see the developments going on around you on the field and looking down to manage the details of using hands and feet to control the ball. Proper business planning, in very much the same way, requires looking up at the figurative horizon and down at the details of tasks, deadlines, budgets and accountability.

SMART Methodology

The SMART method can be used for small or large business goals as well as in your professional, personal or academic life. The acronym ‘SMART’ stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

  • Specific
    Think about exactly what you want to achieve when setting your goals. Think about the ‘who, what, when, where, why and how’ to help keep them specific.
  • Measurable
    Break your goal down into measurable elements and track them at each stage. Think about the result you want to achieve. This will help to better define your goal and focus on why you’re aiming to achieve that specific thing.
  • Achievable
    It may sound obvious, but it’s vital to set goals that you can realistically achieve. If you don’t have the necessary resources, avoid setting an unrealistically ambitious target because not only will it demotivate the resources you do have, but you’ll also be setting yourself up to fail. Conversely, don’t set targets that will be a walk in the park. Set a goal that’s achievable according to the resources you have available and the environment in which you’re operating.
  • Relevant
    This relates to the ‘why’ of your goal. A goal may be specific, measurable and attainable, but if it’s not relevant, then you shouldn’t be pursuing it. Ask yourself the purpose behind the goal and what you hope it will bring to gauge how relevant it is. This also allows you to prioritise your goals – some will be less relevant than others, but it doesn’t mean you should ditch them altogether.
  • Time-Based
    A very important aspect of goal setting is to develop a realistic timeline that you can stick to. You can include specific milestones along the way (by developing as “mini-plan”) that will help keep you on track and have a certain timeframe in which you want to fully achieve your overall goal. If you want to improve your call centre results, set yourself a specific target and a time within which you’d like to achieve it. Then set incremental milestones along the way so you can make steady improvements towards reaching your goal.

Content Awareness

Obviously, it’s important that business plans demonstrate how they support the strategic planning framework, but one of the most significant issues with business planning over the last few years is using plans as a mechanism to justify their own existence. This results in business plans being unnecessary lengthy and including far too much detail and/or being packed with lots of vague, imprecise “weasel words”.

Some of the worst examples of Directorate and Team plans I’ve come across include:

ICT Plan

  • “Provide 1st line support to [the whole business]”…with each division listed as a separate item.
  • “Set up new equipment and support office moves” (e.g. PCs, Monitors, Telephones etc.)

Communications Plan

  • Support all marketing and communication activities.
  • Monitor and moderate all communication on official social media channels.

Social Care Plan

  • Deliver the organisation’s statutory responsibilities.

So what should you do next?

So now that we know what smart business planning should look like in 2021, how can you achieve it? Well first and foremost, you’ll need to “look up” and adapt quickly to changing conditions by collating data from lots of different sources into a single clear view – all in real time. By feeding timely, accurate information into your system, you’ll always have a clear picture of the most recent developments and know how best to plan for them.

Secondly, you’ll need a system that helps you “look down” at the details of achieving those plans and helps you communicate them clearly to your entire team. With powerful, flexible reporting, you can disseminate critical data to the people that need it – and keep them engaged with clear and intuitive visuals to get the message across.

Finally, you need to avoid using disparate, cobbled-together systems and ensure that everyone knows what they have to do by keeping all your vital information in one place. When everyone can see a single, clear view of the truth (instead of wading through different versions of templates and spreadsheets) then everyone will be working from the same page and aligning their efforts to delivering the right actions to achieve the right goals.

It needs to be a flexible, powerful and intuitive system that makes business planning easier and helps you make better decisions faster.

Can InPhase Help?

With InPhase strategic planning tools you can rapidly adapt to change and disseminate your strategy and goals to everyone in your business in a single, easy to use platform.

If you'd like a smidge of extra information about InPhase Strategic planning, just head over to our Strategic Planning page below:

Get in front on your Strategic Planning

Gareth Payne

Senior Consultant

Gareth is one of our Implementation Consultants. He has a wealth of experience in the public sector, particularly local authority where he spent 18 years delivering on policy, citizen engagement and performance management in the West Midlands.

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