"...plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
-- Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
In just a few words, Ike summed up the inherent problem in planning: no plan is ever complete or perfect. Because all plans must change to meet changing conditions, the original plan rarely resembles what actually happens. And that, of course, assumes that something actually happens.
Some leaders conclude that developing plans wastes time and money. They prefer to just dig into the work. But Eisenhower's quote shows that the act of planning provides the necessary framework to accomplish the objective in the face of challenges that were not originally considered. Conversely, changing conditions can easily derail a project that skipped the planning process.
Our approach breaks the planning process into a series of steps to:
This last step, finding owners for projects, represents a crucial difference in our approach. Projects without owners rarely get carried out, and any plan produced or facilitated by New Commons is designed for immediate execution.
Per above, plans should focus on generating action. So every aspect of the plan should focus on achievable results. In addition to defining which results to pursue, each organization must determine, as part of the planning process, exactly what is "achievable" for them. Should you play it safe or go for something that's a "stretch"?
We begin with these questions and facilitate discussion to reach conclusions on these key points:
All too frequently, organizations wrongly believe that they enjoy great unity and alignment among stakeholders as to goals, metrics and milestones. Our process helps define the diverse 'schools of thought' on these issues and provides a format to bring competing or conflicting viewpoints to resolution.
Clearly defining primary goals, metrics and milestones at the beginning of the process provides a framework around which the rest of the plan is built.
No organization, community, or project exists in a vacuum. In fact, it is usually changing conditions that drive organizations and communities to develop action plans in the first place. A condition is a major fact, trend or conculsion. Thus we make a thorough analysis of existing and emergent conditions a major part of our planning process.
Existing or 'immediate' conditions define the current situation and their impact. The conditions exist now and their impacts are known.
Important as these are, emergent conditions often take on a greater significance for an action plan because of the uncertainty they imply. Emergent conditions are still trends and perhaps small trends. They will likely have an impact, but the impact is unclear.
Our process helps identify key emerging trends and track them as their impacts approach. As emergent conditions become immediate conditions, successful leaders adjust their action plans to achieve the goals despite encountering factors that were not - and could not - be fully understood when the original plan was created.
It is at this moment that Ike's maxim comes true: the original plan is useless, but the planning proves to be indispensible.
Now begins the actual process of planning. With goals, metrics and milestones set, and the immediate and emergent conditions understood, stakeholders are prepared to answer the question: What should be done?
Organizations almost never run short of ideas. In fact, many planning processes generate an overwhelming number of ideas, most of them very good ones but far too many to be acted on at once − and the desire is too often to act on them all in the first year. Thus, the selection process rarely asks which idea is better in the abstract, but which would generate the most impact toward achieving the goal given the conditions, including available resources.
Our process enacts a series of prioritization exercises to find the most appropriate action projects to pursue. First, we help clients determine the time frame for execution, with an emphasis on immediate action. Second, we lead participants through a series of non-binding votes to determine which choice enjoys the most consensus.
Rather than ending here, with a prioritized set of action items, as most consulting firms would, the New Commons process takes another critical step to better prepare for execution. Because the process will provide a final round of selection, the list of action items at this stage of the process would not be final. Rather, it would include more action items than could be executed.
In a nutshell, action items for which there are not specific owners accountable for success will never be accomplished. Time and experience prove this to be true.
For this reason, our process helps organizations solidify relationships among their networks of capability and, when necessary, helps them reach out to form new connections to the capabilities required to achieve the goal.
At this final stage of the process, leaders (both formal and informal, recognized and emerging) step forward to claim ownership of the projects they see as critical to overall success. These projects - by design and by necessity - represent the most important, highest priority action items. Projects without owners are placed in a "holding tank."
Now, a plan is ready for implementation.
Many plans we've produced demonstrate high levels of strategic thinking, even though they were never called "Strategic Plans". And we've come across plenty of strategic plans that weren't strategic at all. At least, not by our standards.
We believe that truly strategic thinking identifies itself by a set of qualities that take it beyond the planning perspective. We have six factors we look for.
Factor One: Innovation - Innovation means changing the rules within an organization, the community, or in the market. Strategic thinking questions core assumptions, testing their validity. Identification of a market assumption that no longer holds true represents a strategic advantage.
Factor Two: Prioritization - Strategic thinking accepts that choices must be made. Not everything will carry forward, and projects that lack strategic alignment, worthy though they may be in another context, cannot continue.
Factor Three: Alignment - Finite resources constrain every organization, community, and every project. Strategic thinking aligns available resources - both financial and human - with priority outcomes.
Factor Four: Identity - Any project, any organization or community has an identity. Strategic thinking seeks to leverage existing market recognition or generate market awareness, differentiating itself from others in the market.
Factor Five: Consistency - A plan that is strategic in nature will demonstrate a clear connection between goals, conditions, priorities and actions. Simply put, it says what it does, and it does what it says.
Factor Six: Iteration - As Ike knew too well, the planning is never done. Strategic thinking accepts that there is no end point, only a continuous inquiry into a world that will never stop changing.
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