Has COVID-19 Made the New “Planning Period” 24 Hours?

Take a look at your strategic planning documents. I will wager that the vast majority of them are based on a 5 year period — YIKES! I’ve even seen 10-year plans as well.

The 5-year plan pervades our planning paradigms and quite frankly it’s nonsense in today’s world of chaos, unpredictability and uncertainty.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the destruction it’s had on businesses and other organizations worldwide is the extreme example of the fact that a long planning horizon is a ridiculous notion.

I doubt that many businesses contemplated they would be struggling for survival in just 8 short weeks after the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic March 11, 2020.

So much for the value of having a 60-month view of your business.

I wonder how many 5-year plans are sitting on the shelf right now? How many are being consulted to help businesses through this difficult time?

I would say ZERO, which really declares the value they are to any organization being ravished by an unexpected event.

The investment made in having a planning view 3, 4, and 5 years out is delivering a negligible return on investment in the current environment.

The truth is, the fifth year of a 5-year plan never shows up so what is the purpose of planning for it?

Every year the plan is revised to reflect new information that changes the complexion of the plan and in particular the latter years which end up to be an extrapolation of current trends with absolutely no influence on the actions needed to be taken today to raise performance.

If we take this thinking to its logical conclusion, it suggests that the shorter the planning period, the more accurate it is in terms of expressing the real challenges an organization will likely face and the actions they will have to take to face them.

If you can’t survive the short term, the long term never shows up — Roy Osing, strategic thinker

COVID-19 reality — perhaps the extreme way to think of it — would suggest a “planning period” of 24 hours because that’s how rapidly things are changing at the moment as I write this post.

I know (and hope) COVID won’t last forever but its short term survival imperative should guide our thinking about how to create a meaningful plan for our organizations.

My conclusion — and it’s a view I’ve had for many years, but certainly emphasized and reinforced by the current pandemic — is that strategic plans must have a short term executional focus if they are to be meaningful and useful at all.

I believe that to survive the forces of an ever changing environment, executional tactics within a notional context of your organization’s long term end game should define your strategic plan.

The sum of pristinely executing every tactical element of the plan should define your strategy because it recognizes that chaotic change is the new normal that must be successfully met by the leadership team.

The execution plan should replace the strategic plan nomenclature to give us the clarity we need to determine the success every organization covets.

I’ve suggested that the execution planning time horizon should be 24 months, but that was before COVID. I think realistically we need to think about figuring out what we need to do over the next 12 months to try and improve our chances for survival.

The new execution plan process should look like this:
- Declare your 12-month goals
- Track the results
- Learn from what you’ve accomplished
- Adjust the plan
- Go back to EXECUTE

The result of this process is that your plan suddenly morphs to a living document rather than the inert 5-year view. It’s an organic action compilation and changes with the environment as one learns what works and what doesn’t through execution.

And the actual plan document — if it exists at all — takes on a dual role of being both a description of strategic intent and a repository of learning.

It’s a messy document. It’s written on. It has coffee stains on the pages of which many are earmarked for specific reference.
And, it may possess the odd blood stain from an unwanted paper cut!

It is used, unlike many planning documents that I have seen which look like their original pristine ironed form (perched ever so elegantly on a book shelf where one can hand gesture its presence but never violate its binding).

The strategic planning community will take issue with my approach. After all I suppose it is somewhat gratifying to believe that pristine appearance and a long term perspective somehow defines its worth.

But it doesn’t.

At best this view gives the organization the perception that it has a plan that will be good 5 years out; at worst it prevents the organization from building short term defences to prepare for the unexpected forces that will threaten its survival.