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Planning in an uncertain world

Somehow we are at the midpoint for the year and usually, that means reviewing our plans and checking we are on track.  I have to admit, I wondered if it was worth going back to mine given how much has changed since I wrote it and how much like a work of fiction it would look.  I know I’m not alone in wondering where to start with planning and making decisions with all the uncertainty we are experiencing.

That’s what we are going to talk about over the next few episodes.

So, are you ready?  Its time to get curious and make some choices about how we plan in a rapidly changing world.

Is it worth planning with all this uncertainty about?

If you are listening to this podcast in the week it’s published, the strange but true fact is that we have just hit the halfway point for the year.  I say strange but true as it doesn't really seem that time has been passing in its usual way and the Dr Who quote about time not being a linear progression from cause to effect but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint being more of a big ball of wibbly-wobbly,  timey wimey,   stuff, seems more apt than ever.  

And normally, the midpoint of the year is one of those times where we press pause for a moment, review where we are and then refocus our plans.  But let’s face it nothing has been normal about this year, so is this something we should pass on, another thing to let go of as we navigate the rolling waves of change the storm that is 2020 is delivering?

And even if we do decide to plan, how can we since all our usual planning assumptions are proving to be untrue and we don’t really know what to expect from our business environments?

And those are very valid questions.  And we could choose not to plan and to just go with the flow, but let’s be real my Curious Choice Leaders, that’s not really our style is it.  OK so it could be an interesting experiment and we might learn something from doing it for a while, but we know that now we are in the messy middle of the changes this year is creating, it’s time to start looking to the future so we can build whatever comes next for our businesses, our teams and ourselves.  If you and your team want to keep doing whatever it is you do in the long term you need to all be going in the same direction and you need a plan.

Why we should still plan despite the uncertainty

Now what that plan looks like, in terms of details and time frames may need to change but you need to come together, plan and then work the plan. 

It’s part of what our teams need from us to make their work feel worthwhile, to keep them pulling in the same direction and give them a sense of purpose that we all crave.

What happens when we don’t provide this clarity about what is coming next is people will fill in the blanks in their own way, which can cause some very interesting challenges down the road.  Just last week I had a call from a client wanting advice on how to handle a situation in their team where one team member had assumed they would all continue working from home and was now living five hours away from the office.  The company concerned have not yet decided if they are going to continue with remote working in the long term but hadn’t communicated that and now this leader has a complex situation to resolve.

As we look at our roles in leading people through change it’s all very well when we know where we are going as a result of the changes, but right now we are all trying to work out what a post-pandemic work world is like.  Hopefully, we won’t always have to lead with this much lack of information about the future very often, but what we learn doing it now will make it simpler next time we’re leading change.So, yes you can probably see how to lead people away from the Pre Covid world, but where are you taking them?  That’s something we are all working out as we go along.  The world around us is literally changing week by week if not day by day, and sometimes it feels like hour by hour.  There are very few certainties.

Does that make planning harder, yes.  Does that make it more complex, yes.  Does that make it impossible – No.

As we have discussed, in previous episodes, we can always choose our reaction to a situation, you could choose to avoid and abdicate planning as a leader right now we’ve talked about the consequences of that option, or you can choose to see this as an opportunity to improve your planning and build your team and your performance going forward.

But where can we start with our planning

So how do we do that?  Where can we start when we need to plan in a seemingly unplannable situation.  From my perspective, there are three areas to think about, what’s stayed the same, what we can control and how far out we plan and I’m going to talk about each of them in a little more detail.

What stays the same?

It’s a very natural reaction when we are faced with change, to focus on what is different and stop noticing what has stayed the same. 

If you think back to when you were younger, you may have done those spot the difference puzzles, the ones where you have two pictures and you have to spot what’s different about each of them.  As you do the puzzle the differences become all you can notice and we almost literally stop seeing what has stayed the same.  It’s the same with change - we are drawn to what is changing and soon forget what has stayed the same.

And recognising the things that have stayed the same give you a platform for your planning.

Things that are likely to have stayed the same include what your organisation exists to do, the clients and customers you serve, the values your organisation lives by and the business goals may well have stayed the same.

We can use the things that have stayed the same in two ways to help us plan - firstly it gives us a start point and some constraints and secondly it can help us build a framework to make decisions.  And once we have the framework it becomes relatively easy to make decisions, effectively you just need to ask, does this meet the criteria we set and move us in the right direction.

Planning Horizons

Next up we can think about the timeframe we think about our plans for, or if you like our planning horizons.   

If you think of planning like a road taking you where you want to go, when things along the road are staying still and staying in line, the road is straight and it’s easy to see a long way into the distance, and maybe even all the way to where you want to be.  When things are relatively stable we can see a long way ahead, the horizon can be a long way away, and we can plan further into the distance.

Now imagine the things at the side of the road keep moving into the road, one or two we can cope with just by gently swerving around them, but as more and, more of them move we can find ourselves on a twisty trurny slalom course of a road, and only able to see a few feet ahead and not knowing which direction to turn.  Sounds a bit like 2020 doesn’t it!  It becomes a bit like being a rally driver waiting for the co-driver to read the plan and tell us which way and how hard to turn just before we need to make that manoeuvre.  We still want to get to the destination, there is still a plan for us to follow and rather than focusing on the moves some miles ahead we need to focus on making the right next turn now.

This shorter-term decision making in the context of a long term objective is uncomfortable at first, just like rally driving it uses some adrenalin, and importantly it relies on us being able to help our team flex and adapt rapidly and uses all our skills leading change.

Your task here is to work out what the right planning horizon is for your situation.  The reality is that these planning horizons are going to move and emerge as new information comes to light, so there is no one right answer here, you need to consider things like how long the things that are uncertain will remain uncertain, and if there are things you can do to reduce the level of the uncertainty around specific things or even remove it altogether.  

It can be helpful to keep a list of all the assumptions you are making around the uncertainties so you can monitor when anything changes and adjust your plan accordingly.

Personally, since March I have changed my business planning horizons from having an annual planning framework with detailed quarterly plans, to focusing on my long term vision and planning month by month what I need to do to keep moving in that direction. For my business that feels right and the question is what’s right for you in your situation.

What can you control?

Finally, the third area we need to consider is focusing on what we can control. 

If we think about our business and the world it operates in, we can break the thing we think about down into 3 areas, the things we can control, so things like how you do a particular task, the things we can influence, so things that you need other teams or other people to help you with, and the things that concern us but that we can’t directly influence or control, like finding a cure for Corona virus - unless you are one of the amazing research scientists working on this, in which case, thank you!

When we are planning how we solve a problem or move to a goal it can be helpful to break the factors that impact that plan, the ideas we have about how we can reach our goal, and the things we think may stop us, and all the things we are not certain about, into one of those three categories.  Imagine these three categories as concentric circles - the inner circle is the things that you can control, next out is the circle that is made up of the things you can influence and outside that are the things you are concerned about.  

Circles of Control, Influence and Concern

What happens when we choose to focus our energy and effort on the things we can control is that that circle gets bigger pushing the circle of things we can influence so it grows too.  However, if we focus on the things that concern us that circle grows too - but rather than expanding overall it grows by pushing in on the things we can influence and the things we can control so both circles get smaller.

When our circle of control is small we notice the uncertainty and feel we are being pushed around by whatever changes come our way.  

So we need to focus our planning on the things we can control, and spend most of our time and effort there,  with some time spent working to influence the things we can influence.  

The successes you gain working this way will help you, your team and your business feel good about the work you are all doing and soon build the momentum you need not to be thrown so far off course by any changes that come your way.

Summary & Taking Action

OK, so in this episode, we have talked about how even though it can seem like an impossible task that would be pointless anyway given our experience of the last quarter, we need to plan ahead and why that is important.  That plan may look different and we may well not be able to provide the clarity we are used to providing with our plan.  Then we talked about the three areas it’s helpful to consider when starting to bring you plan together; looking at what has stayed the same and using that to build a decision framework, thinking about our planning horizons and how far ahead it is sensible and pragmatic to plan and then finally how we need to concentrate on the things we can control.  We have choices to make about how we plan, and as we reach the half way point of the year, now is the time to make them.

The things I share are based on my experiences and some will be more relevant to you than others - it’s up to you to decide what you take and apply from this podcast.  That’s what curious choice leadership is all about - getting curious and building our understanding then evaluating what we find and making choices about what’s right for us and our business

So the three questions I would like to leave you with are, 

  • What things that impact your planning have stayed the same?
  • What is the right planning horizon to be working to now?
  • What are the important things can you control and use as the basis for your plan?