Shaping the Future: The Critical Role of Planning During Transformational Change

By: Gregory A. Janicik

In times of transformational change, good organizational planning can be a challenge. Even when planning occurs, there is little impact on the future actions and decisions of leaders, as they must constantly adapt to new information, new competitive threats, or shifting market constraints. As Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Does this mean planning is irrelevant when leading transformational change? Quite the contrary—establishing good planning routines can separate those leaders who succeed during change from those who fail. The key to effective planning in times of change is to ensure that planning processes allow for flexibility and adaptability, while still getting employees to stay focused on the right priorities. In the words of Dwight David Eisenhower, “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

In the beginning phases of transformation, most leaders work in concert to communicate a clear strategy—that is, helping employees understand which tasks are essential and which tasks aren’t. However, as time progresses, competing demands emerge and managers (as well as employees) find themselves either confused or in conflict with others over what’s important and why. Competing demands quickly morph into misaligned priorities, which often stall critical decisions or activities required to move forward. To avoid this type of logjam, leaders need to focus on maintaining agility in two important planning processes:

  • Continuous strategic scenario planning: Many companies engage in annual strategic planning that consists of (a) assessing both the internal and external situation to formulate strategy, (b) defining actions to implement the strategy, (c) establishing metrics to evaluate progress, and then (d) making adjustments as necessary to stay on track. However, these adjustments often do not occur, or are made too late. During transformational change, organizations benefit when leaders engage in continuous scenario planning, thinking through different contingencies—updating and aligning employees as shifts in strategy occur.
  • Flexible resource allocation: How many times have you heard the complaint by managers that they don’t have the budget to do what is necessary to drive important changes in their respective areas? In times of change, resources need to be allocated to the appropriate strategic initiatives. Stopping non-critical tasks isn’t enough—the dollars and people required to drive change must shift to where they will have the most impact. Unfortunately, many leadership teams will have conversations about shifting resources but lack the discipline and follow-up to achieve desired results. Flexible resource allocation allows for greater innovation and risk taking—as well as the ability to support short-term priorities and initiatives needed to transform the company.

Leaders can spend a lot of time setting up, monitoring, and executing the above processes. In our collective experience, companies that do both well tend to have a culture that supports proactive planning AND adaptability at all levels of the organization. Yes, leaders can shape how managers across the company think about strategy and execution. However, if the right operating culture is in place, leaders also shape alignment such that managers speak up and make effective trade-offs when resources don’t support priorities and initiatives. Getting managers down in the organization to think about contingent strategies and how to best allocate resources alleviates the burden of everything being a top-down directive. This can occur only with an effective operating culture that emphasizes proactive planning and efficient resource reallocation.

Do your leaders help shape appropriate strategic responses? Or is your company constantly in fire-fighting mode and getting bogged down when critical decisions or action is needed? Companies that (a) recognize or reward managers and employees who don’t have a lot of fires to put out and (b) engage in long-term planning and strategic problem solving are more likely to build effective operating cultures that foster adaptability.

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