How Does Systems Thinking Improve Organizational Agility?

Systems Thinking offers simplicity, and therefore the possibility for agility both in the development and the implementation of strategies. Looking at an organization as a group of systems within a series of external systems is clearly a good start for creating agile strategies.

Further, applying a practiced evaluation of the organization by identifying INPUTS-THROUGHPUTS-OUTPUTS with a FEEDBACK LOOP, we can speed up the process of strategy development, and the creation of specific actions to implement the strategies.

Developing strategies and implementing them has been a focus of businesses for many decades and improving the processes is an ongoing conversation. In recent years, applying Agile concepts and techniques is getting more and more attention. It has even been questioned as to whether applying Agile techniques is even worthwhile. This has even been discussed on forums on startups with divergent conclusions on how effective this might be.

Using Agile techniques means that those strategies are more likely to be able to be adjusted quickly and effectively through their implementation. Systems Thinking brings a simple, reliable and repeatable rigor to strategy creation and implementation thereby offering a higher level of agility, admittedly a desirable attribute for reaching an organization’s desired outcomes more quickly and completely.

If Agility means getting things done faster, being more flexible in adjusting to changes, then Systems Thinking can help make these things occur. “Begin with the end in mind” as Stephen Covey said, is one key element both in Systems Thinking and in ensuring we are more easily able to keep focused on the long term while we adjust to the short term. This simple concept makes a huge difference to ensure we actually reach our objectives.

Fleshing out how Systems Thinking increases an organization’s strategic agility, we can consider the external environment, a natural factor in any system. The value of conducting a rigorous scan of the FUTURE environment of the organization lies largely in the relatively quick and easy identification of Opportunities and Threats. This effort results in intelligence that greatly enhances an organizations anticipation of what to capitalize on and what to prepare to overcome. Being more prepared certainly improves the organization’s Agility.

Agile Strategic Thinking Template

Using Systems Thinking, this template improves agile strategy creation and implementation

A tool we use for creating strategies is the framework “Agile Strategic Thinking Template” adapted from the Haines Centre for Strategic Management’s Systems Thinking Template  http://bit.ly/2aySbMD.

Managing the structures and processes created by the strategic initiatives is a challenge that grows in correlation to the size of the organization. Larger firms will naturally seek software to help with this and there are some out there.

Another tool we use for implementing and managing strategic initiatives is the Agile Strategy Manager SaaS at https://www.agilestrategymanager.com/strategy-framework.html .

Please share your thoughts and reasoning about why and how Systems Thinking improves the Agility of organizations in developing and executing strategic initiatives. Also, will you share with us any Systems Thinking tools you use that make organizations more Agile?

3 Tips: Making Strategic Planning Agile

Creating and managing change is in the pressure cooker! The 2001 introduction of the “Agile Manifesto” by a consortium of thought leaders of the software development industry has now spilled over into nearly, if not all, aspects of managing organizations of all types. This includes strategic planning.

First and foremost, let us accept that Strategic Planning is necessary and requires time, diligence and innovation. Nevertheless, there are tools you can use to make strategic planning agile, speeding up the planning process and achieving the same, and often better, results. Agile is one of those.

Here are three ways you can make Strategic Planning agile

  1. Run your planning retreat in a manner that includes breaking into teams that operate in SCRUMS. The teams, each led by a facilitator, follow the iterative process in a very compressed time frame of 15 to 45 minutes (see SCRUMS) to achieve relatively small, discreet goals. These group collaborations, when facilitated using some key Lean Six Sigma tools, will more rapidly create the results you need in assembling your Strategic Plan.
  2. Apply Systems, or Strategic, Thinking rigorously to maintain an “outcome-based”, or “future-oriented” focus on the planning and implementation of the strategic initiatives. This ensures you concentrate your thought processes and behaviors on evaluating the entire organization as a “living system,” and includes considering the overall environment the business operates in. This helps to make strategic planning agile.
  3. Create the structures, processes and culture that ensure everyone in the organization understands their role in making the business a success. This may include deploying a proven tool, like the Agile Strategy Manager, that aids you in tracking, managing and adjusting your desired goals as everyone does their job to reach them.

Agile Decision Making Framework makes Strategic Planning AgileUse a proven framework for planning. It helps drive the use of a common language for communicating, following, measuring and managing plans throughout the organization. Applying Systems Thinking also ensures the outcomes you identify are creating value for your customer. And don’t forget the importance of providing your people with the best tools available to track and report progress. This also helps to make your strategic planning agile.

Practicing “Agile” techniques, beginning with the Strategic Planning process, will permeate the Strategic Management process. Your organization’s various teams will implement the broader strategic initiatives and their respective tactical tasks. Keeping those tasks aligned with the organization’s strategic initiatives will help the teams adjust and innovate in a much more “Agile” manner.

Celebrating your and your people’s successes will be so much more impactful when everyone realizes that being AGILE and COMPREHENSIVE are not mutually exclusive endeavors.

Volunteer Burn-Out is a Non-Profit Dilemma

Takeaways: 1) Age demographics and volunteer burn-out are dilemmas for member-based non-profit organizations, 2) Why clear and concise communication is paramount, 3) Why change must be embraced with a revolutionary approach.

Member-based non-profits inherently are subject to the dreaded disease of volunteer burn-out. As I scan the world for member-based non-profits and consider their membership age demographics, two things are crystal clear.

First, the most obvious one is a seriously older demographic, from the few members left of those who were adults in the mid 1900’s to the huge population of baby-boomers worldwide.

Second,  very few of those organizations are working really hard at recruiting and engaging new members of ages 25 to 45. Those that are, struggle to connect across the generational chasm that has generally tripped up humanity for centuries.This has deepened in the last 170 years with the rapid cultural changes brought on by technological advancements.

Balancing planning with action is a common struggle for non-profits, and if they are membership-based, perhaps even more so. This may be more evident among organizations that are 30 years or older, but it also affects those that are newer and have instituted some mature processes and structures.

I am looking at two very worthy member based non-profits. One is experiencing continued success but mild growth in membership. All of its programs are very well received by the communities it serves and its members are overwhelmingly deeply engaged. The other is experiencing membership decline, slow action among its leadership, a lot of activity in planning for the short and long term, and is struggling with its value proposition and member engagement. The first one is over one hundred years old, the other a respectable 15 years young.

A common thread I find in successful organizational development continues to be that of clear and concise communication. Communication of vision, values and goals in a timely and simple manner continue to be the key ingredients to successful member engagement. Why? Because it provides key support and direction to the leaders of the local groups to keep everyone moving toward the same overarching goals.

I see a number of aspects to what I call The Maturity Dilemma. One is that mature member-based organizations generally have a long-established way of doing things that worked for their generation of members. This creates a culture that is comfortable for that age group but likely misses the mark with other age groups. Another aspect is human nature’s normal resistance to change. Throughout our lives we have been taught to seek long-term conformity and stability, in spite of things changing around us all the time. We are not taught to thrive in change and therefore continue to hold this aversion to it. We have not developed the skill sets to thrive in change. So the organizations we lead tend to suffer from the same shortcoming.

Like all systems in the world, yet another aspect to this Maturity Dilemma is entropy. Our member-based non-profits are becoming so comfortable in our “way of doing things” that we simply never respond to the changes taking place OUTSIDE our organization.

I propose that like nearly all for-profit organizations, we must stay more in tune with our “markets” and our external environment. We must establish the processes and structures that will embrace change and help us thrive. We must, in a word, become “revolutionary” from within.

What does that really look like? To me it looks like making change happen fast, like in most revolutions. It looks like planning quickly, acting decisively and being prepared to adjust quickly to the changes we are creating. It looks like we must rapidly evaluate how to leverage the positive results of the changes we make and just as rapidly mitigate the negative results of those changes. It looks like we must not fear failure but instead react quickly to correct it.

I am not suggesting this is easy. In fact it is counter-intuitive to human nature and how we have been taught. We have to be, as author James B. Swartz so eloquently put it, “Seeing David in the Stone”, a reference to the courage displayed by those who pursued a vision without a manual to show them the way. We have many, many tools at our disposal to start us on our way. Planning strategically or tactically is key among them, but balancing that planning with rapid, decisive action is what will win the day. Forcing ourselves to maintain that balance will also drive us to communicate those plans in a timely and concise manner, thereby short-circuiting the entropy that creeps up on our organizations in uncanny mimicry of Alzheimer’s Disease.

If you would like to discuss this topic further, please contact me. My expertise in accelerated change management and deep knowledge of non-profit organizations may be helpful to you!

Simple Planning Model for Small Businesses

A while ago I came across an article written by Noah Weiss for Medium.com (Nov. 2014),  which describes a simple planning model he calls #now, #next, #later. In it he discusses a method for smaller businesses and teams to create effective action plans using what he calls “Priority Buckets”.

Priority Buckets

Original image by Arvid Rudling,Flickr creative commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/arru/4919629582/sizes/l/

As I read on, I realized this might work really well within the systems thinking planning model. You still need to have a direction, a Desired State or Vision of what you want to achieve. But once you’ve identified that, it would be fairly simple to then ask yourself the following three questions:

If XXXXX is what we want to achieve or what we want our organization to BE in 12-18 months, then…
1) What do we need to do #now to make sure this happens?
Now is within the next 2-4 weeks. These are the most critical actions that will make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time. They are usually easy to identify, and many may already be underway. Once those are identified, then ask…

2) What do we need to do #next to achieve this Desired State or Vision?
These are the actions or activities that must be accomplished in the next 1-3 months AFTER the #now activities.

These are harder to identify, so sometimes a simple exercise of “If this, then that”, may be necessary here. Developed by a colleague and project management pro, Terry Schmidt, this consists of asking “If this is to occur, then what needs to happen to make it so?” Keep asking that as you identify each of the steps or activities needed to achieve a specific goal.

For example, if your team is trying to determine which of two software investments to make, you might ask….
A.  If we make investment #1, then what else will need to happen? These could be
> additional IT resources will be needed for new programming, for example, and
> we’ll need to create new training programs for the staff who will use the new tool.
The initial investment may be the least out of pocket cost, but what are the internal costs of additional resources being diverted for extra programming and training? How many months will it take to get approval for the resources, do the internal programming, and create and deploy the training modules?

B.  If we make investment #2, then what else will need to happen? These might be
> no additional IT programming since the tool exists in the cloud, not on the company servers.
> no need to create training programs since the investment comes with pre-recorded training videos.
This out-of-pocket investment may be more, but it will enable the company to hit the ground running and be up to speed faster without diverting additional resources for programming and training.

3) What do we need to do #later?
This is the final question to ask and concerns the activities that may take place 3+ months AFTER the #now and #next activities. Essentially, this is a place to park the ideas that various members have a passion for, but which aren’t necessarily critical to achieving the Desired State or Vision. Just list them here and re-visit them again in three months to see if anything has changed.

By asking these questions, your team has essentially created a simple action plan that includes your Desired State or Vision with a date by when that’s to be accomplished, and then the critical actions that need to take place to achieve it. Each action needs to have dates by when they must be achieved and a leader to move that action forward. You will also need to identify the minimum acceptable goal for each activity.

For example, if purchasing the software in the above example is the decision, and you don’t have all the funds in place, then you need to identify the minimum dollar amount you need to raise within the next 3 months in order to purchase the software. Remember, the purchase of that software is one of the critical activities that will help you achieve your Desired State in the next 12-16 months.

You also need to identify the specific activities you need to undertake to raise that minimum dollar amount to purchase the software, who will lead each fund raising activity, and by when each will be accomplished. Then gather together again as a team within the next 3 months to review your results, make any changes, and adjust your #now, #next, #later activities.

Each team member can then tag their own actions as fitting under #now, #next, #later to help them prioritize the detailed activities they are working on under each of the larger action items.

It’s easy to get mired in the details the further you go down this path. It’s somewhat like following Dorothy down a rabbit hole and getting lost in the woods. So it frequently helps to have a facilitator in the room to keep you on track and help you find your way to the “yellow brick road”.

Contact us if you have questions about this and/or would like help implementing this at your organization.

Strategic Planning Career Takes Focus

Eric A. Denniston, Denner Group International   January 30, 2014

Takeaways: A strategic planning career defined. A possible career path to plan for. What size organizations to seek work in. Valuable certifications to obtain and keep.

Are you already planning to have a career, or switch your career in the direction of Strategic Planning? Make sure you ask yourself what long term outcomes you are looking for and once you are in that career, what becomes possible for you. If you are just beginning to pursue a professional career, ask yourself, what is it about Strategic Planning that spins your jets and what will cause you to pursue such a career with focus, vigor and tenacity. In either case, also make sure you talk to people who are in this career, either as internal practitioners or as consultants and executives who hire these people.

Having an undergraduate degree is a basic place to start if you are planning such a career after or soon after finishing high school. A business degree is more likely to lead to work that is best suited to gaining experience you will need; however, social and engineering sciences can also be very beneficial. This is true because strategic planning in fact requires multi-disciplinary skills.

Large Organizations Provide Platforms for Skill Building

Becoming effective as a planner involving strategy requires significant experience in tactical activities, and getting to know at least one organization of a few hundred employees or more extremely well. This can be accomplished by working in a number of different areas of a company, or a similar company in the same industry, say banking, manufacturing or insurance. Understanding how all those departments interact will lead to good insight for leading planning activities later on. Typical roles that will enhance your career include being a project leader or a department manager, and getting involved in process improvement.

Along the way, skill building will come through practice; and finding mentors, both inside and outside your company, will help immeasurably as well. You should also pursue general and specific education opportunities. A master’s degree in management is a good choice, if possible focused on strategic management, which is a growing area of discipline. You should also become certified in one or more of the following: Strategic Planning and Management (ASP), Project Management (PMI), Business Analysis (IIBA) and Enterprise Architecture (TOGAF). Each of these certifications leads their respective areas of discipline. Going through the training provided for each one will expose you to materials, knowledge and thought leaders that will give your career opportunities a substantial boost. Obtaining and keeping these certifications requires an ongoing commitment. Staying certified demonstrates to others your level of commitment to being among the best in the business.

Larger organizations provide amazingly rich platforms for working at and practicing the different disciplines that lead to being an effective strategic planner. The variety of challenges and problems that occur produce a rich environment for considering how tactical and strategic solutions can be applied to overcome them, and when to use both. Understanding how these complex living systems function and how their various parts interact is key to developing the insights necessary to succeed.

As your career progresses, seek more and more involvement in planning, whether it is department budgets, or planning and leading projects. Understanding the roles different levels of management have in planning will lead to deeper involvement as you prove your skills. Seeking leadership roles in higher and higher level strategic planning initiatives will help as well. Eventually, you may lead the strategic planning or strategic management team, or move on to Change Architecture, which is a natural extension of Strategic Planning and Management.

What’s exciting about work in strategic planning is seeing the broad view of a business while helping to create and execute successful long term plans, and the sense of value that comes from assisting large numbers of people to jointly reach shared goals. This occurs in organizations of all sizes. Job titles include Strategic Planning Manager, Chief Strategy Officer, Program Manager, Portfolio Director and Change Architect. These are all valuable and growing areas of management in organizations worldwide. Global firms present even more challenges generally rooted in the cultural aspects of managing strategy. If you wish to pursue a global career, mastering a second language and spending time in a culture to know it well is a sure way to both enhance your career and your life in general. Gaining a masters’ degree in Global Management is also a plus.

Overcoming Planning Mistakes

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  11/18/2012

Takeaways: Overcoming planning mistakes requires some strategic thinking up front to ensure all the possible outcomes and issues have been addressed.

I recently had the opportunity to address a group of folks who are undergoing some community-wide leadership training. The topic I was asked to focus on is strategic planning and I tied some leadership issues into the process. I am about to describe a couple of examples of planning mistakes that were takeaways from this session and offer some possible lessons from them.

Imagine you are a coordinator for public services. This could be related to municipal waste management, child protection services or perhaps court administration. You are informed that a new building is being constructed and are told which departments or activities will be moved to the new building. To that end, the people in charge of the planning interview you and your teammates to gain insight about the best use of the new spaces where you will be working. You provide the input and everyone involved walks away with the impression that all the needs and details have been adequately handled.

The new building goes up and suddenly you realize that the way the spaces have been laid out –  in the way of room size, number of rooms and layouts – actually produces a large amount of wasted, generally little-used space.  In addition, the types of users of those spaces and the number of users were not really considered. The planners and designers made some assumptions along the way that were incompletely informed. Their intent was good, just not fully informed.

What do you think went wrong? What may have been missing from the process? Who should be held accountable?

Clearly defined vision is needed

Here are my suggested learnings from this example:

  1. It seems highly probable that a key missing element may have been a clearly defined set of desired outcomes for the public that will be served at that location. Basically, keeping the customer in mind, always.
  2. Not enough time was devoted to laying out the process and the structure for the planning. A little more time devoted to this might have resulted in keeping all the stakeholders, including you, informed, involved and engaged by asking why you thought certain things should be a certain way, all the way up to the end of the project.
  3. Once the initial consultation with you had taken place, the leader of the planning process could have held a brief meeting for the express purpose of laying out how you and the other stakeholders could continue to provide input. Those responsible for executing the project have ultimate decision-making authority but their decisions could have been better informed.

Accountability is subjective, to some degree of course. However, if you are coordinating public services, are you not accountable for how they are delivered and aren’t the facilities an integral part to how effectively those services are delivered? Consider for a moment that you might be engaged in coordinating services for family mediation.

Is it not really valuable to the family attending a counseling session that the environment they are in during such a session be of an appropriate size and have the right furniture to ensure a comfortable and safe environment?

Here is where leadership is also part of the conversation. You are experienced in coordinating these public services and understand the needs of your customers because you are on the front lines, right? Your leadership could be in play by setting up your own structure to stay involved in the planning and execution of the new building so you can keep asking the question “ Why?”, making you accountable to yourself for ensuring a good delivery of services to your customers. Others don’t need to ask you to do it, you just do it as part of your job of being a high performer.

That’s the first level of leadership – Self – followed by One-to-One, Within Departments, Between Departments, Organization-Wide, and then the Organization’s Environment.

Now for another example…..

Let’s say you operate a real estate brokerage with four employees and two months have gone by since you created a strategic plan. This plan outlines the broad strategies that your business is to follow over the next three years. You have established a vision for your business, assessed how the future environment may affect your business, established some key success measures, assessed the current state of your business, outlined those broad strategies, and now must define the major action items that will help you close the gap from today’s reality to your future vision.

Again, I ask: What do you think is going wrong? What may have been missing from the process? Who should be held accountable?

  • First, what strikes me as missing is actually typical of many long-term planning efforts, but probably more common in smaller organizations. Let’s acknowledge that planning takes time and in a small business this means time away from DOING the business, or time away from maintaining a balance in your life. You feel you have created your plan and that’s enough, it’s time to get back to business, right? I say “NOT YET!”
  • You still should spend some time putting the structures and processes in place that clearly outline the expectations and accountabilities of everyone involved in working the plan.
  • The structures could simply be a calendar of meetings that everyone agrees are mandatory.
  • The processes could simply be the owner sharing a series of agendas that the meetings will follow and assigning roles to the staff, like someone to send out reminders, someone else to take minutes of the meeting and someone to gather input from the others on specific topics before the meetings.

Essentially what is going wrong is there is nothing in place to make the plan sustainable. It’s two months after the planning session and you still don’t have action plans and a calendar to follow up. Do you agree with this? Do you sense the plan is already forgotten?

Now, what do you think the next steps are after the long-term plan is completed? Is it complete? I propose it is missing two key parts. One already mentioned is that the major actions are missing that need to be acted upon over time to keep closing the gap toward the vision. These actions are supported by the key success measures also previously mentioned, but they must be clearly written out to serve as references and checkpoints.

Another missing piece is what you can call a Yearly Map of Implementation. This is a schedule of meetings and actions that the business owner or CEO must set up as the strategic planning “retreat or meeting” is concluded. This Yearly Map includes the periodic meetings of the staff (to formally check progress against the plan and make adjustments), specific tasks the owner/CEO must do monthly to hold him/herself accountable to the plan and to check in with, mentor and coach the employees in staying true to the plan.

If your plans, short term or long term, seem to fall short of achieving their stated outcomes you might consider reading more of our articles and exploring how our customized coaching and consulting services can help you improve your organization’s performance. Just contact us to schedule a no obligations interview to determine your needs and how we might help.

Whether you are a non-profit seeking to maximize your fund-raising, an auto-repair shop facing challenges in growing the business, a department or a division of a larger organization or a thriving organization looking to sustain a high level of performance, we can help. Our passion for long-term, sustainable, high performance in managing organizations can help you save money, make your employees and customer happier, and your organization’s future more controllable.

Planning is Dead

By Eric A. Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International   3-22-2013 

how you think matters when doing business planning

Takeaways: Gain clarity in how the type of thinking can affect the outcomes of your work and planning for your business. Get some insight about the importance of skill building in how you think.

Haven’t you heard? Businesses have stopped doing any planning. Why bother? It eats up resources of   time, and also money if you get outside help, especially for strategic or long-term planning. It’s distracting from the work at hand. It’s complicated. We can do it on our own. And then…someone writes the plan up and it’s forgotten!  Sound familiar?

This is called a paradigm, which just means that it’s a pattern, or model or a series of practices that we accept as a community. What’s important is that it’s a pattern that we accept and follow because we keep our thinking rooted in today’s and tomorrow’s sales, profits, successes and results. The short-term outcomes.

What ‘s important is that it’s a pattern that we live with because we DON’T think about what our customers will want from us in three, or five or ten years. I’m not talking about the next iPhone we will invent. I’m talking about the next step in delivering quality and value to our customer. The quality and value that will keep our current customers coming back and new customers to seek us out. The quality and value that will make our vendors and other stakeholders want our business, because we’ll be growing. The quality and value that will make workers want to work for us instead of someone else. The quality and value that permits us to improve our lives, those of our employees, and those of others. The quality and value that motivates us and others to do even better.

When we DON’T devote the time and invest the resources in THINKING and ACTING in a manner that supports creating that FUTURE quality and value for our customers, we are failing to create a sustainable business. In today’s world, any business that does not seek out AND create its own change is doomed at least to continued mediocre performance –  if not outright failure.

So why state that “Planning is dead”? Most likely, these words are not new to you. Perhaps what might be new or only somewhat familiar to you is that there are two acknowledged styles of thinking when it comes to managing a business. They are tactical thinking and strategic thinking. And don’t think it’s as easy as saying that tactical is short term and strategic is long term, because they are both short and long term, only to different degrees.

Learn to Think strategically

Why is a style of thinking important in planning? Consider this: If you are REALLY going to focus on long term planning, shouldn’t you do just that, FOCUS ON THE LONG TERM? Perhaps to the exclusion or near exclusion of the short term? If you have tried this, you know it’s nearly impossible to accomplish excluding one from the other. The good news is there are skills you can apply to your thinking style to adapt the style that is most appropriate to the task at hand.

For example, let’s say you are working on an issue involving the design of a critical part for a machine and the result of the solution, once attained, will produce the perfect part. To address this, you would primarily apply tactical thinking to break the problem down into discreet parts (materials, measurements, manufacturing processes), solve for each part, and then test until you know you are done. A secondary type of thinking would also be applied here to make sure the manufacture of this part is going to fit into the whole system that the part must operate in. Maybe it’s an engine for a vehicle, and making this part affects how the engine is designed and assembled. Can you see the interrelationships here? What you plan to do is design a part that is perfect for the application. That design comes about in a relatively short time; however you have applied both tactical and strategic thinking to resolving the design issues.

You, or perhaps a coworker in another department, are responsible for making sure the part you design meets certain strategic criteria. Here the strategic thinking part of the planning will be looking at the whole system, perhaps the engine, the vehicle(s) that will be using the engine, the operating environments intended for the vehicles, and the geographic markets it is intended for, instead of addressing the discreet parts of the problem. Maybe you can see how the short term and long term views overlap here. It’s not black and white, short and long. It’s a mixture, or a blend of the two.

This is why it is valuable to learn the skills to think and act tactically and the skills to think and act strategically. What is more important is to know the difference and when to use or apply which one and how to blend them when necessary. This skill building will also drive home the importance of devoting the time, resources and effort to carry out disciplined long term planning for your business

Planning next month’s sales is just as important as planning next year’s expansion program. Granted, it’s easier to see next month’s sales, but if you don’t spend time planning and creating the changes necessary to meet the demands required for next year’s expansion, the expansion very likely will either not happen at all, or will be far below expectations, or dreams.

So don’t let planning die! Learn some of the tricks of the trade. Thinking is one of them. Get help from experts. Devote the time. Spend the money. Train yourself, train others in your business, and build the skills for planning in your firm for next year and beyond. Most importantly, set schedules to review and update plans to keep the documents alive and out of the credenza.

Good planning involves clarity and focus in your thinking, discipline in working and adjusting the plans, and keeping it all simple. Single page documents for tracking, not long reports. Use digital tools for sharing information whenever possible, there are many cost effective tools out there. And, perhaps just as you see an attorney or an accountant for specialized advice, tap your favorite management consultant or strategic planning advisor on the shoulder from time to time and ask for help.

And, remember these four steps, which you take in order then circle around and repeat them again and again: LEAD – THINK – PLAN – ACT. There must be a reason that the Association for Strategic Planning has that as their motto.

Engineer Success Up Front-Include HR

By Jeri T Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International   10/4/2011

Takeaways: It’s important to include HR in the planning process to engineer success up front. Doing so makes it possible for them to address the people issues when it comes time to implement the key strategies. Many HR professionals have to learn to be strategic thinkers. They are trained to be tactical and thought of only as need in the tactical implementation process.

Frequently when organizations work on their strategic plan, they forget to include Human Resources (HR) early in the process. Why is this?

Perhaps it’s because HR is considered unimportant until it’s time to implement the plan. The challenge with that is if they haven’t been involved up front during the planning creation, there may be some critical issues that weren’t addressed early on that now need to be considered.Book Author 2

Another reason may be that HR people generally aren’t or haven’t been strategic thinkers. A friend and colleague, Timi Gleason, wrote a book about how to be a strategic thinker, called Coach as Strategic Partner: a Survival Guide for Leaders and Their HR Business Partners.

In it she shares her personal stories of learning to be a strategic thinker in a Fortune 200 company when she was thrust into a position as the head of HR – with no background or training in that field.

Apparently, this has been a common theme among many HR professionals who have found themselves in that position not through pre-planned training, but by accident. Thus, learning to think at a higher and broader level did not come naturally to many who were focused on the daily tasks of learning the HR function. This may be why at the executive level in many organizations, HR is not considered a member of the planning team, but rather part of the implementation team later on.

This needs to change

HR must be present at the table early on to represent the employees who will actually “do” the implementation of the plan. This is part of “engineering success up front” by including every detail up front of how the plan will be communicated and executed when the time comes. The organization may find it needs to make changes in facilities and workplace environments, for example, that only the HR executive would think about.

In her book, Timi mentions, “A big mistake that we make as leaders and strategic partners is when we don’t share the end game with our employees and colleagues. In our own inability to articulate our vision and needs, we expect smart people to be able to read our minds, and most of the time they can’t. It is in this exact moment that we have the opportunity to help each other. “

That is what’s happening when HR is left out of the loop at the onset of the planning process.
To order her book click here.

Why is Business Planning So Difficult?

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International 2-20-2-13

Takeaways: Business planning requires strategic thinking and analytical thinking skills. It’s important to understand the difference between the two. Best practices include having clarity about where your business is going, keeping the planning process simple, and involving your staff in the planning.

Nearly all small businesses struggle greatly with most everything having tPlanning mazeo do with planning for their business. The most obvious obstacles are the basic resources of a small business: time and money. I have no doubt that the two most overlooked obstacles to business planning are the lack of management commitment to planning and the lack of skills in planning. Planning skills are not a subject generally taught in school at any level but perhaps graduate degrees and beyond which mystifies me.

So much really good material has been produced about best practices in business planning but it’s not emphasized enough. If you, dear reader, agree with me, read on. If not, you may be among the few who are well-practiced in the disciplines, skills and arts of business planning.

Discipline and Concentration Required

Most small business owners, naturally, wear many hats. This has the effect of preventing one from devoting the discipline and concentration to actually doing the planning, and much more importantly, to establishing the processes and structures to support the execution of those plans. So, what can business owners and managers do to effectively and efficiently introduce profitable planning activities to their organization?

First, I suggest you recognize that planning skills are learned mostly through practice.  However, in addition to courses at your local colleges, a great resource is a local or online consultant that can also more easily tailor some instruction to your needs.

Second, also recognize there is a learning curve that might delay your progress in planning. This you can overcome by hiring a consultant to facilitate some planning sessions for you. The big advantage here is that you can learn along the way. A good consultant trains and coaches you through the planning process so you and your staff can build the skills your organization needs.

Third, become serious about having discipline in your planning programs. Keep it simple at first, but plan on building your programs to an optimal level for your organization. When you set schedules for planning meetings, stick to them. If you don’t, you are telegraphing to your staff that planning really is not that important to you as the owner or manager. And insist on attendance at the meetings. Make it part of staff evaluations to participate in planning meetings.

Best practices to implement immediately

> Gain clarity on the distinction between strategic planning and operational planning. Strategic planning is creating a Vision and a Mission, defining the values that guide the organization’s behavior, and determining what positioning the business wants to have in the eyes of the customer, not in your eyes. Strategic planning is also about laying the general route of the journey the business is on to reach its vision, defining the key success measures you will use to know you are still on track. It is about having clarity on where the business is today and what its strength and weaknesses are. It is about defining the core strategies you will follow and the key action items to implement to achieve the vision. And finally, it is about constantly scanning the external future environment your business operates in to better address the changes you’ll have to make in the future on your way to your vision.

By contrast, operational planning is concerned with the tactical issues of running a business. Budgets, meeting schedules, action plans to support the strategies, setting policies, defining roles and tasks, outlining market segments and pricing, hiring, firing, advertising, etc., all are part of your operating or business plan.

Recognize then, that you should have two separate plans – a strategic plan and a business or operating plan. And develop them in separate sessions, with the strategic plan first. Also, more importantly, recognize that each planning process actually involves thinking very differently. This is a distinction that schools should teach.

 

Most of our schooling is in how to think analytically or tactically, therefore, we are under-prepared to think strategically or systemically. This means we need to make sure we build up our strategic thinking skills. Much has been written about this so you can search the internet for books, articles and courses on this. But, you can also learn while you do the work, which often is the most productive way to do it. Consulting firms like ours help you do just that.

> Another best practice is to keep it simple. Just the idea of a planning session will make most business owner and managers roll their eyes as they think of how of their employee’s time is tied up in doing this. A carefully laid out plan that accounts for how your business and employees must operate is an important factor in efficient planning. The skills a consultant brings can help enormously. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I have yet to find an entrepreneur who did it all himself or herself. They found good help along the way so don’t be bashful about asking for help.

> A third best practice in keeping it simple is to use a framework tool that I know works in all sizes of organizations. Called the EABC model for planning developed by the Haines Centre for Strategic Management, this model has you answer five questions in this specific order:

  1. What are your desired outcomes –  your future desired state?
  2. How will you know you are on track to reach them?
  3. What is your current state, which can easily be achieved with a SWOT analysis?
  4. What do you need to do to bridge the gap from where you are today to your future desired state? and
  5. What will be occurring in the future that will affect your achieving your future desired state?

If you would like a free copy of this model, please visit our website to download a copy.

Best practices in planning also include an understanding of the time required to draft a plan. And don’t forget, the time to establish the structures and processes to make sure the plan(s) are implemented or executed. Too often, once a plan is drafted, nothing happens because this crucial step is overlooked or ignored. We actually recommend a brief,initial “Plan to Plan” session to set the stage for success before you implement. This allows you to identify the personnel, financial and time resources required to truly achieve a successful planning program.

If you are conducting your first strategic planning process, I recommend two full days in an environment that eliminates distractions. A retreat is a good idea, but what is important is not being distracted. A good, experienced facilitator can make this happen in one day but what will be missing is some training for the staff on the planning and implementing processes and structures required.

Also, be inclusive with your staff. Let them know what is going on and be prepared to involve and engage them in the planning process. Again, an experienced facilitator can be very valuable in coaching you on how to engage staff, keep them informed, and on what to engage them in.

To wrap up, let’s remind ourselves of some key practices in planning.

  • Set a schedule and stick to it.
  • Be inclusive and keep people informed.
  • Build planning skills any way you can.
  • Understand the distinction between strategic planning and operational planning and do them separately using the appropriate way of thinking.
  • Establish the structures and processes to ensure your plans are executed and measured efficiently.

To speed up or simply make the planning happen, don’t be bashful in asking for help. A few hundred or thousand dollars for a consultant’s help could mean 10 to 100 times return on your investment, and likely more engaged and productive employees in your organization.

Parallel Involvement in Our Tablet Initiative

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  4-8-2012 
Warehouse Planning

Parallel involvement in the warehouse

Part C – PLAN
Now, as we begin to plan what we’re going to do about deploying our tablet initiative in our warehouse, let’s keep our parallel involvement process going to mitigate any other potential unintended consequences. This is a key Systems Thinking tool.  A good step at this point is what can be called plan to plan. This means lay out a road map that outlines what needs to be done to have a solid plan. For instance, listing and engaging the various stakeholders in the planning process to ensure their input is both present and relevant. We should also ensure we have the financial and human resources to carryout our project. Well-facilitated meetings with stakeholders that interrelate are a high priority. The stage must be set to exclude personal and political agendas. This is a content issue that can help immensely to avoid time lost due to unnecessary and distracting conflicts. Having absolute clarity on the desired outcomes, “how this impacts the customer” is a really good way to avoid distracting agendas. Everyone can more easily focus on those over-reaching goals.

During this planning phase it would be a good idea for us to conduct some internal and external assessments that will help us flesh out some key strategies and alternatives that will keep us on track to our desired outcomes.  We can preempt some of the pains we will encounter and will have identified some key enablers to a successful project.

Bring Stakeholders Together
Let us then plan on scheduling meetings to bring those stakeholders together. Must they be in person or is everyone comfortable with online meetings? Does it make sense to engage an external facilitator to avoid that person “having a dog in the hunt” and therefore a potentially counterproductive bias? Do we have good in-house facilitators for meetings we can also use? We are looking at making a potential large investment in time, money and changes in how we do things, so we must weigh the value of applying the best inquisitive inquiry techniques and processes as possible at this point.

Now let us explore our list of stakeholders without too much detail. We need the warehouse managers and floor-staff to help us flesh out specs like tablet size, battery life and content of the data to be managed by our tablets. Our IT department has to look at that content too but also platform compatibility such as operating system, possible custom app development and support and IT vendor relationships.

Our IT and tablet vendors should be consulted on the impact on wireless bandwidth requirements, support issues (like that pesky automatic update Waste Management experienced), intended tablet life-cycles (new, improved product releases for example), in-tablet or cloud-based apps and to evaluate their capacity to participate long term.

Our sales and purchasing departments, supply chain managers, HR department and attorneys should all have some input on the content. Sales, purchasing, supply chain and process specialists need to look at customer value issues. HR and our attorneys should address things like what do tablets have a native ability to do that maybe are inappropriate on the job, like using the cameras most tablets have. It’s possible that in a warehouse environment, this could be a real plus. Consider a warehouse worker, taking a picture or video of a pallet of product just unloaded showing potential damage and immediately emailing the images to the buyer in purchasing asking if it’s acceptable or should it be returned. That’s a great example of just-in-time response and empowering the people who have the information to resolve problems with high efficiency.

A counterpoint to that, also cited in Information Week, is that if the tablet users are in a position to abuse the cameras, on some tablets the cameras cannot be disabled! This type of instant sharing of information also needs the input from legal counsel to help establish rules and policies for ensuring security of the data. This includes confidentiality of the data and its misuse, intentional or otherwise of the various native features of the tablets.

Consider Product Life Cycles
Purchasing and asset management should chime in on product life cycles. For example, to determine if the tablets replace other equipment and the financial impact of these issues. The strategic management office can support the effort by coaching the leaders on best practices on planning, perhaps facilitating meetings and helping to integrate the project into the company’s overall strategic plan. The process specialists can contribute to the content and hardware selection by ensuring right-sized tablet s and accessories are selected and related company processes are all aligned.

The HR department should help determine any training required and changes in personnel to support the new tablets. Not just the end users are to be considered here but possibly hardware and software technicians for custom apps and to customize the units. Information Week cites that Avnet disabled a number of features on the iPads they deployed in their warehouses thereby increasing times between charging to up to three days, since the iPads were only using those features necessary for the job. The others, like iTunes, were disabled.  Last on the list but not least are the PR people, who may be able to leverage improvements in customer value as a result of the initiative. Involving all the key stakeholders in the organization and getting their input on this project are part of using a systems thinking approach for this initiative.

But wait, there’s more! What if this tablet initiative provides better real-time inventory data that the sales force can use? Now our warehouse tablet initiative can further improve customer value where we are actually are in contact with the client! So we are compelled to now consider deploying tablets to our sales force. But that’s another project.