Plan to succeed: Eight steps to improve your planning skills

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Don’t we love it when a plan comes together? But what does it take to create a successfully implemented plan?

Early in the year, usually after the January go-slow mode, during the increasing pace of February, the need for planning becomes vital.  ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’, as the saying goes. 

It’s nice to have no plans and coast along — we all need to decompress — but we know what happens when an email from your client or leadership team, turns up reminding you of an important project which is yet to see completion.

Let’s get enthusiastic about our plans!

Plans resemble a Meccano set — structures fashioned from metal strips, plates, nuts, bolts and so on — requiring judgement on how tightly something should be screwed or pieced together. Planning means selecting, analysing and monitoring of a scenario’s component parts, their coordination and forecasting the likely consequences. Getting it wrong somewhere in the process means the plan will topple or go wonky.

For a masterful approach to planning, read Peter Fitzsimons’ stirring account of Sir John Monash and the 1918 lead up to the Hamel victory in World War I. Monash’s success lay in both the meticulousness of his applied engineering and mathematics knowledge together with the experience that only army life, business setbacks and personal adversity could teach him. Unlike other leaders in that war (Monash was later praised by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as the best general on the Western Front), he worked to protect the soldiers he commanded and to bring a decisive end to the “horror and inefficiency” of the carnage witnessed. 

Eight steps to improve your planning skills

Most of us will never be called on to do what Monash accomplished, but his planning acumen became a blueprint for future strategists and is of gold-star standard to this day.

There are all kinds of software out there for project management — much of it undeniably useful, especially for tracking multiple initiatives. Or you can improve your planning skills through the following.

1. Clarify what are you trying to achieve 

Set out the objective or deliverable and clarify the expectations around it. It’s important to articulate expectations as they have the potential to impact the objective.

2. Determine when this needs to be achieved

Create a timeline, allow for contingency, and set out mini-deadlines for the ‘milestones’ along the way that enable the achievement of what must be done.  Plan backwards from your ultimate objective and always allow time for things that could go wrong, or which need to be rejigged. 

3. Establish who needs to be involved

Identify those who will be instrumental in achieving what you’re doing, which team members have the skills to contribute, whose signoffs you require, and about all the stakeholders who must be consulted.

4. Locate where this is all taking place 

Are there mini-deliverables and timelines that concern this part of the plan — and what are the variables and logistics in those locations that need to be known about and planned around?

5. Decide how the above will be prioritised and coordinated

How are you planning to ensure relevant people’s buy-in (endorsement of what you are doing) and how do you plan to keep them in the loop? Frequent, constructive and reliable communications are essential in good planning or even a communications plan.

6. Why are you going about your plans this way?

Are there alternate ways of realising your objective that could be more effective? In other words, consider all possible approaches to what you’re doing and do this well in advance, so that there’s time to change course without disrupting all the dominoes. Being prepared to listen to others is likewise a vital component in planning (but not to the point that they muddy the process).

7. Will your plan adapt to changed circumstances quickly?

Anticipate various scenarios. How will your plans change? Factor in contingencies when luck does not strike, and the reverse occurs. Monash was certainly not leaving anything to fate, but his letters to his wife reveal that he knew there was always the risk of his being killed in combat. However, he was confident of success and planned for every eventuality.

8. Consider which parts of the plan worked and why

It’s so important to be able to stand back and review a project, when the plan and the work have been completed. Evaluate what worked well and why. Be pleased about that and know how you contributed to the success. But also, be honest, about the hiccups, the mistakes and failures, because herein lies the critical learning and insights for improvement strategies.

A pinch of anxiety about outcomes can be very useful, providing you don’t let yourself be overwhelmed.  As you gradually master the details of what you’re planning, the anxiety transforms into adrenalin — the alertness that all plans depend on, for timely delivery and resounding success.

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