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Planning - A Two To One Return On Investment

Mar 10, 2008
Let me take you back a few years to my government days, when I was head of the Corporate Development team within a peak government department. One of the areas my team looked after was Strategic and Business Planning for the department and all of the little units within the department.

Now at that time the department was renowned for its planning. They loved having other departments take time to plan their strategies, projects and priorities. They created massive guideline manuals that made the Yellow Pages look like a weekly women's magazine so people knew EXACTLY how to plan. They had whole teams of people scrutinizing the details in each department's plans.

Why did they do all of that? Quite simply they did it because it worked.

The trouble was when it came to doing their own planning it wasn't as simple as you would think. They knew it was good for them, they knew it had to be done and they had told everyone else they needed to do it and they knew it had to be done regularly.

... But every year it was hard to get them motivated to actually set the date to plan, let alone allocate time for it. I mean it was really pulling out fingernails sort of hard at times.

Dates would be set, and then changed ... and changed some more as pressing business came up. There would be fights over in-house (my team and I) or external facilitators - which was the best solution? (The funny thing was most of my team ended up becoming external consultants so are now "external facilitators")

People would RSVP and then cancel at the last moment. They would allocate two full days which would gradually get whittled down to a few minutes over a cup of coffee in between meetings. "Hey -why hold it at all - why can't we just dust off last year's plan, change a couple of words around and put new pictures on it. It is not as if it really has changed that much" I heard a few of the managers say out of earshot of the head of the department.

But the funny thing is that whatever the facilitator, whatever the time that finally was allocated, as I would give them their final draft of the strategic or business plan for the year, I would universally hear "we really needed to do this - no matter how hard we complain".

Why am I telling you this? If the guys who know that planning really works find it hard - how much harder is it for small business who may not be so sure about planning to actually take time out to plan?

So what happens when you plan - and do it properly and seriously? Well funny things happen.

First you get a horrible realisation that what you thought everyone knew about your business was only you talking in your head late at night and that no-one else has the same understanding. This is a real wake-up call for most managers. Many managers just don't get that people can't share their understanding or vision unless they take time to communicate, communicate and then communicate some more.

By a process of conversation - yes the old fashioned form of social networking, you start to gain a shared understanding of where the business is now. For many people in a team this is the first time they get to understand what Mary over there really does and how "the business is travelling".

Assumptions about where the business is going and what is happening next are crashed on the rocks of "are you serious - I thought we were doing xyz". From the wreckage a new boat is built that everyone has a hand in making and sailing.

But the best bits are the hidden bits - the bits that don't make it onto paper. This is where you start to see the team actually work together as a team. Joking and having fun - enjoying each other's company for a while. You see bonds form, bridges built and tensions ease.

That is precisely the purpose of those horrible games you are made to play, or ropes courses you go through or laps at Mt Cotton driver training centre - they are all designed to get the team actually functioning as a team so they can plan as a team.

You see an up swell in morale, energy to go forward and a map to get you to your destination. You also see greater productivity as for a time everyone is actually heading in the same direction rather than spending time at cross purposes.

Now, all of these results don't come if you are just cramming in a few minutes over coffee and cake Gloria Jeans. They only come if you take some serious time out to plan where you are going.

The New Year is a great time to plan - as mentally most of your team work on calendar not financial years (if you have a mob of rabid accountants in your team they probably don't share this view).

So ... even though it is hard, take the time to plan. Physically close the place down for half a day or even a day. Go somewhere away from your normal workspace if you can (it doesn't have to be an expensive suite - your local library, PCYC or community centre often has rooms to hire for nominal cost).

If you can, get a facilitator to make the day flow smoothly and so you can actually participate as an equal rather than run the show for a change.

Go on - you know it makes a massive difference to your business! Even government does it (eventually).
About the Author
Ingrid Cliff is a Freelance Copywriter, Business Development and Human Resources Consultant to Small Businesses with her business Heart Harmony. Ingrid writes a free weekly small business newsletter and Small Business Ideas blog for small businesses.www.heartharmony.com.au
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