What is Planning? Planning is setting the direction for something — some system — and then working to ensure the system follows that direction. Systems have inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes defined as follows:
- Inputs to the system include resources such as raw materials, money, technologies and people.
- A Process is employed on these inputs to align, move, and carefully coordinate them to ultimately achieve the goals set for the system.
- Outputs are tangible results produced by processes in the system, such as products or services for consumers.
- Outcomes are another kind of result or benefits for consumers, e.g., jobs for workers, enhanced quality of life for customers, etc.
Start With the “End” in Mind. Whether the system is an organization, department, business, project, etc., the process of planning includes planners working backwards through the system. They start from the results (outcomes and outputs) they prefer and work backwards through the system to identify the processes needed to produce the results. Then they identify what inputs (or resources) are needed to carry out the processes.
Key Elements of a Plan. The planning process and the plan itself typically includes the definition of goals, strategies, objectives, tasks, and resources. Please note that completely accurate definitions of each of these terms are not essential. It’s more important for planners to have a basic sense for the difference between goals/objectives (results) and strategies/tasks (methods to achieve the results).
- Goals: Specific accomplishments–outputs from the system.
- Strategies or Activities. Methods or processes required to achieve the goals–processes in the system.
- Objectives. Specific accomplishments necessary to achieve the goals– usually “milestones” along the way when implementing the strategies.
- Tasks. People are assigned various tasks required to implement the plan.
- Resources (and Budgets). People, materials, technologies, money, etc., required to implement the strategies or processes. The costs of these resources are often depicted in the form of a budget–resources are input to the system.
Overview of Typical Planning Phases
Whether the system is an organization, department, business, project, etc., the basic planning process typically includes the following basic activities.
- Reference Overall Singular Purpose (“Mission”) or Desired Result from System. For example, during strategic planning, it’s critical to reference the mission, or overall purpose, of the organization.
- Take Stock Outside and Inside the System. For example, during strategic planning, it’s important to conduct an environmental scan considering various driving forces, or major influences, that might effect the organization.
- Analyze the Situation. For example, during strategic planning, planners often conduct a “SWOT analysis”. SWOT is an acronym for considering the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and the opportunities and threats faced by the organization. During this analysis, planners also can use a variety of assessments, or methods to “measure” the health of systems.
- Establish Goals. Planners establish a set of goals that build on strengths to take advantage of opportunities, while building up weaknesses and warding off threats.
- Establish Strategies to Reach Goals. The particular strategies or methods to reach the goals depend on matters of affordability, practicality, and efficiency.
- Establish Objectives. Selected to be timely and indicative of progress toward goals.
- Associate Responsibilities and Time Lines With Each Objective. Responsibilities are assigned for achieving various goals and objectives complete with deadlines.
- Write and Communicate a Plan Document. The above information is organized and written in a document, which is distributed around the system.
- Acknowledge Completion and Celebrate Success. This critical step is often ignored in lieu of moving on the next problem to solve or goal to pursue. Skipping this step can cultivate apathy and skepticism — even cynicism — in your organization. Don’t skip this step.
Guidelines to Ensure Successful Planning and Implementation
A common failure in many kinds of planning is that the plan is never really implemented. Instead, all focus is on writing a plan document. Too often, the plan sits collecting dust on a shelf. Therefore, most of the following guidelines help to ensure that the planning process is carried out completely and is implemented completely — or, deviations from the intended plan are recognized and managed accordingly.
- Involve the Right People in the Planning Process. Get input from everyone responsible for carrying out parts of the plan
- Write Down the Planning Information and Communicate it Widely. New managers, in particular, often forget that others don’t know what these managers know, or others won’t completely hear or understand what the manager wants done. Also, as plans change, it’s extremely difficult to remember who is supposed to be doing what and according to which version of the plan.
- Goals and Objectives Should Be SMARTER. SMARTER is an acronym, that is, a word composed by joining letters from different words in a phrase or set of words. In this case, a SMARTER goal or objective is:
– Specific. “Write a paper.”
– Measurable. “Write a 30-page paper.”
– Acceptable. If you involve me in setting the goal so I can change my other commitments or modify the goal, I’m much more likely to accept pursuit of the goal.
– Realistic. The goal won’t be useful to me or others if, for example, the goal is to “Write a 30-page paper in the next 10 seconds.”
– Time frame. It’ll mean more to others (particularly if they are planning to help me or guide me to reach the goal) if I specify that I will write one page a day for 30 days.
– Extending. I might be more interested in writing a 30-page paper if the topic of the paper or the way that I write it will extend my capabilities.
-Rewarding. I’m more inclined to write the paper if the paper will contribute to an effort in such a way that I might be rewarded for my effort.
Build in Accountability. Regularly Review Who’s Doing What and By When?
Note Deviations from the Plan and Replan Accordingly. It’s OK to deviate from the plan. It’s a set of guidelines not rules. Notice deviations and adjust the plan accordingly.
Evaluate Planning Process and the Plan. Regularly collect feedback from participants. Do they agree with the planning process? If not, what don’t they like and how could it be better?
Recurring Planning Process is at Least as Important as Plan Document. The real treasure of planning is the planning process itself where planners learn a great deal from ongoing analysis, reflection, discussion, debates and dialogue around issues and goals in the system. While documents are important, at least as important is conducting ongoing communications around them to sensitize people to understanding and following the values and behaviors suggested.
Nature of the Process Should Be Compatible to Nature of Planners. A prominent example of this type of potential problem is when planners don’t prefer the “top down” or “bottom up”, “linear” type of planning (for example, going from general to specific using an environmental scan, SWOT analysis, mission/vision/values, strategies, timelines, etc.)
Adapted from “Basic Guidelines for a Successful Planning Process,” by Dr. Carter McNamara.
How does this article inform your approach to facilitating planning in the groups you work with? Is there anything mentioned that struck you in particular? I invite you to share your questions, feedback, or experience on this topic in the comments section below.
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