“Go Sir, gallop and don’t forget that the world was made in six days. You can ask me for anything but not time.” Napoleon Bonaparte
One of the most overlooked aspects of operational and strategic planning is time. Time is not a fungible commodity; nothing can replace time once lost. Time cannot be substituted for another resource to take its place, and because of this, time is unique.
As a craft, operational and strategic planning is usually associated with a long time horizon. To wit, most strategic plans are conducted over a five-year period and are assessed annually to determine if they remain relevant, feasible, and logical. Today, automation and the relentless march of technology have quickened the pace of strategic planning. Instead of a five-year plan, four and even three-year plans may be better suited to an organization, depending on the operational environment and the pace of change affecting the company or unit.
Of course, the pace of change inside and outside an organization may render its strategic plan, or portions of the plan, obsolete at any time. As such, planners and strategists should continually assess whether the plan is still valid and understand the indicators and trends within their operational environment. The key to this is a long German word, fingerspitzengefuehl, which is literally translated as “a fingertip feeling,” or more roughly, “…an intuitive instinct about any given situation, and to know how to react to it without having to deliberate.”
Having a few planners and strategists with excellent fingerspitzengefuehl is a precious commodity. By having a “fingertip” for understanding the changing operational environment, these personnel can provide leadership with quick and timely recommendations on the state of a strategy or plan and recommend changes to adapt to the emerging environment. Again, timing is key here. Wait too long, and one can miss an opportunity to exploit new information or data to the organization’s benefit. If one acts too quickly, then there is a possibility that the trend wasn’t fully mature, and as such, could give a false positive which would negatively affect the strategic plan. There’s a real art of when a plan has to be altered or changed, and having educated and experienced planners makes a real difference.
When Should My Company Begin?
This is a common question; however, there’s no common answer – timing varies depending on the state of your organization. If your organization lacks a strategic plan with solid lines of effort, tasks, and common objectives, then today is a good time to begin! However, if your organization is in uncertain waters, it is worth considering using some Design aspects to better understand the operational environment before you begin planning. As one three-star General once told me, “A plan executed swiftly will never succeed if you don’t understand what the objectives are…in essence, you just solve the wrong problem more quickly.”
If your organization’s leadership has a good grasp of its operational environment, then sooner is always better than later. In some organizations, this design process is also known as “planning to plan” – but regardless of what it’s named, it is absolutely essential to frame the operational environment first. During this process, problems will emerge as well as objectives, and those should be captured for insertion into the actual strategic plan.
At some point early in the planning process, it is useful to remind personnel why so many organizations, corporations, and government agencies create strategic plans. At the most fundamental level, plans and strategies are developed to bring order out of chaos and to focus the organization toward common goals and objectives. It is easy to forget why planning is critical to the success of an organization, and it occurs more often than one would expect.
When Should We Revise the Strategic Plan?
This is another commonly asked question but is not as easy to answer.
- The first place to look is to examine the logic behind the objectives and the lines of effort within the plan or strategy. If the logic has become obsolete or irrelevant then it’s time to seriously re-look at whether the plan has to be reconstructed. Most of the time, the entire plan will remain logical, but a specific line of effort may have simply been overcome by events. In that case, the line of effort can be removed if the objectives have been accomplished or if the necessity of performing those tasks has been lessened.
- The second answer is simple – your organization has achieved the majority, or all, of its objectives, and it’s time to re-examine the operational environment. The trends and indicators will have changed over time, as all complex adaptive systems are wont to do. The success of an initial strategic plan becomes the foundation for the next strategic plan, and the organizational culture should be in place for the firm to take the next step in the planning process.
- A third reason is due to factors outside of the organization’s control. There may be new laws, policies, and regulations that force an organization to change its strategic plan and objectives. There may be a grassroots effort to change as well. This is most commonly seen within talent management and personnel staff sections, as the workers in an organization may start to demand changes to working conditions, salary, overtime, paid time off, or benefits packages. Societal pressures can be added into this category, as seen with recent activities with remote work, minimum wage increases, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) activities. There are also economic conditions to be considered here, as perhaps a large investor in the organization backs out, or the overall economy has started to sputter. Specific to the private sector, additional investments or going public with a company can also force a revision to a strategy, as the company can now perform additional objectives that it wanted to achieve in the past but did not have the people or money to execute.
- Finally, there are internal changes to the company which sets conditions for another strategic plan. There may be a change in leadership, and this person(s) is tasked by shareholders or political figures with changing the focus of the organization. There may be an unexpected loss of personnel within the organization, a phenomenon that seems to be more prevalent with the emergence of hybrid or telework agreements.
Overall, understanding when to revise a strategic plan is more rooted in art than in science. Having a dedicated and experienced cadre of planners and strategists helps alleviate tensions and friction, and they will be able to advise senior leadership on when to begin revision of the strategic plan.
We’ve Completed Our Plan, Now What?
There’s no time to waste!
Your strategic plan should include a series of achievable and measurable metrics as part of the assessment process. Objective owners within the staff should be expected to consistently report on these metrics, whether they are meeting them or not, and why. These metrics help transition the strategic plan out of the theoretical frame and into the executable and operational frame.
Also, your team of planners and strategists should begin working on the next strategic plan. This does not mean an immediate revision, or a complete re-do of the plan. It does mean they should be scanning the environment, identifying emerging trends and indicators that would affect the current strategic plan, and start to conceptualize what the next strategic plan would look like. The easiest way to do this is by asking a simple question, “What does our organization look like if we achieve all of our objectives?” That, along with strategic guidance given by the leadership of the organization over time, should help steer the organization toward the next strategic plan.
Time is an exceptionally valuable commodity because there is nothing that can replace it. As one climbs up the career ladder, time compresses as you have less control over your schedule and more demands on your time. Understanding the temporal nature of strategy and planning is mandatory for the reduction of friction and tension within the organization, it provides additional focus for employees, and it can determine the success of an organization. As President Dwight Eisenhower said during his farewell address, “Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.”
If you find yourself in need of strategic planning advice, I’m here to help – you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I always have time to talk.