The latest pandemic facet to catch me by surprise (and believe me there have been many) has been how business planning has been impacted. I’m not sure why I didn’t see this sooner, but then again, that’s probably the point. It’s just hard to see things coming.
One of the things I truly love to work with my clients on is their future planning. Maybe it’s my Control nature, maybe I just love being in conversations about forming new realities. But the process itself truly energizes me, and I always intend to pass that enthusiasm on to my clients.
This year’s efforts have proven to be very “interesting”. And yes, I’m using that word to distract from the fact that I really don’t know how to describe my experiences with a single, convenient adjective.
The planning sessions have started out as usual with a retrospective on the past year, how it shaped up, the impact it had and what was learned along the way. As you might expect, everyone spent way more time on this “warm up” exercise than I can ever remember. There was just so much to talk about, so much to process (intellectually and emotionally), but ultimately not a whole lot of clear, handy learnings to extract.
We all seem to still be in the “trying to make sense of 2020” stage, with an emphasis on the word “trying”. And that makes sense because so far 2021 has shown us that not much has really changed. I’m reminded of the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake here in Northern California, the one that shut down a World Series game. For days, we were all just wandering around recounting our experiences to each other, sharing deeper truths than we were typically comfortable with, realizing that something had changed forever, but not sure quite how to put our finger on it. Ultimately, we drew no specific conclusions from the experience, only finding satisfaction in connecting with others. And that is what these retrospective conversations have felt like.
Once those drew to a conclusion though and we shifted our attention to the future, it felt like nobody had much to say. And, when they did, it was like we were all just fumbling around in the dark. What are we planning for and when? Nobody seems to really have much of a clue. And why should they? What will change as a result of the vaccinations being rolled out now? When will business reopen to the public at large? What will travel and gatherings be like? What will be the long-term impact of social changes in terms of buying patterns? We just don’t know, so how can we plan?
But that’s the thing about future planning, you need to have some sort of a working thesis about what’s likely to happen in the world to know what you are planning for. And we are all sorely lacking in that department. Even the laziest form of planning, which is looking at what happened last year and adding 10% doesn’t work, because who wants a repeat of last year, let alone more of it?
So, how do we plan now? I will say that I’ve never been a fan of 1-year planning, since a calendar year doesn’t represent a true business cycle. I prefer to plan in “phases” rather than months, but, when forced to plan according to a calendar, I always recommend a 2-year plan, because it’s long enough to get a lot accomplished and it’s easier to set larger goals. That option however is out for now.
This time around, I have found that people just get glossy-eyed and nervous when we think too far into the future, as they experience more uncertainty than possibility. Anything beyond a 90-day timeframe just gets too nebulous. So, for the first time in my history of business planning, I’m recommending 90-day business planning. Set goals for 90 days, develop projects and determine your actions over the course of the quarter, and check in on progress every 2 weeks. That’s probably good enough for now.
But, the main thing at this moment to land on is your WHY. Getting clear on your context (or your intention) for why you are doing what you are doing is always important and truthfully the most powerful part of any plan. But at this point, when we’re not even sure what our WHAT is, our WHY has to serve as the guiding principle for which we make our decisions and manage our energy. So, now more than ever is a great time to get really clear on why you do what you do, because your intention will begin to manifest the future you desire, and you can plan on that.