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How to Plan Like a Leader

Your success as a manager will depend on your skills, ability and knowledge in planning, followed closely by control. If you are in senior management, much of your time will be spent in strategic planning. You will be involved in planning if you are a middle manager, too, but it will primarily be short term—on operational planning.

Still, if you are to effectively lead your work team, you need to be familiar with both strategic and operational planning.

To understand the difference between strategic plans and operational plans, think of them both from a military perspective. Strategic plans are the basis of a major battle or an entire war, while tactical and operational plans deal with engagements or skirmishes.

Why Plan?
Some managers don’t appreciate the need for planning—even operational planning—given today’s fast-changing world where the time frames for planning are continually being shortened. Admittedly, our chances of planning effectively in our unpredictable world are greatly diminished if we approach planning as we have done in the past. Rigor is needed, but we need to be more flexible than in the past. And failure to plan—whether a year, three months or even a month ahead—can cause confusion and, ultimately, crises in our unit.

In terms of the bigger picture, since a unit’s efforts should support the overall corporate mission, it can make the corporate master plan work—or not. The inability of a unit to fulfill its commitment because of poor planning can mean not.

The Bigger Picture
To understand your role in the planning process, let’s begin at the top of your organization, with its mission. A corporate mission statement articulates the company’s vision. It gives direction to all within the firm. The more succinct the statement of the mission, the clearer it may be. Henry Ford used nine words to describe his company’s mission in 1903: “I will build a motor car for the multitude.”

The next step is a SWOT analysis. SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It is merely a guide for organizing your thinking about a company and the environment in which it operates. Corporate management examines the firm’s external and internal environments in conducting a SWOT analysis.

After the analysis, senior management asks some serious questions, including;
  • Does it have the resources and capabilities to take advantage of the opportunities in the external environment and neutralize the threats it has identified?
  • How many competitors have the same strengths and management competencies as the firm?
  • Does the company lack a particular resource or capability that it can’t afford to acquire? 
    If it has this resource or capability, can the company make something of it to grow the business?\

Top-Down Planning
Corporate strategies are the broad goals designed to grow the business. These strategies are vital because they will give you and your colleagues within your organization a focus. The mission is achieved when the strategies are accomplished. The strategies or objectives, built around the organization’s mission and customer demands, cascade down within the organization, translated at each level into goals that support the strategies.

So you and each of your peers need to begin your planning from the strategic planning done at the corporate level.

For instance, before setting final goals, you, with your staff, should consider your unit’s strengths and weaknesses and any threats and opportunities in light of your company’s mission and strategic and tactical goals. This SWOT analysis will influence both your goals and your plans to reach them.

Once this analysis is completed, your team is ready to commit to the unit’s goals. Goal setting is critical for effective planning. Perceptions about what is important to the team may differ and, unless time is spent in discussing and mutually agreeing on a unit’s goals, the planning effort will be wasted.

Unrealistic goals can have an emotional impact on staff members, causing resentment and even anger when employees know they are being committed to goals that are out of reach. So when you sit down with your manager and, later, when you talk to your staff, you need to discuss the stretch the goals set demand. What will you need to do to accomplish the goals senior management expects of you (staff, equipment, information)? If you can’t get what you will need, you need to renegotiate the goals as your unit’s leader.

The Planning Process
Once your unit’s goals are identified, you need to meet with your staff and make your plans. As you make your plans with your group, beware of certain human tendencies because they can interfere with even the best-laid plans. For instance, the staff may focus solely on the short term, giving little attention to the period beyond. Or it may be too optimistic, believing that something unforeseen at this point will occur to make the goals achievable. Or, your team may encourage you to oversimplify the internal or external environment. For instance, you and your unit may plan to find more distributors for the firm’s products, ignoring the likely reality that competitors will emulate the practice or your sales force may see such an expanded distribution network as competition and put obstacles in your way.

If significant change within your unit will be needed to enact a plan, you may even get opposition during the planning. If the plan might threaten job security, your staff members may not want to face that tough issue.

The more specific you are in planning, the better it may be for you. However, don’t get so wrapped up in the planning that you lose sight of what you are trying to do, but be sure that any problems that might arise are identified and that solutions are pre-determined.

Keep in mind that the most important factor in the success of the planning process is the plan itself. At the end of the process, you need to ask your staff questions to show that you have done a good planning process:

  • Is the plan clear? Do we understand it? How about our peers?
  • Does the plan agree with the values and purpose of the organization? 
  •  Does the plan deal effectively with both threats and opportunities, those identified by top management for the organization and by the unit? 
  •  Does it identify the items of importance to our work unit? 
  •  To what extent does it contain specific, measurable goals and objectives?
  • Is the plan a real basis for action?
  •  Does the plan contain contingencies in case of a serious internal or external event?
  •  Does the plan include a way of obtaining feedback on its success?
  • Is the plan flexible in case it needs to be changed?

About the Author(s)

Florence M. Stone is editorial director for American Management Association, editor of MWorld and Executive Matters, and author of the AMACOM book Coaching, Counseling, and Mentoring.