3 Approaches to Planning During Uncertainty

This article was based on episode 128 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the full episode guides when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase individual full episode guides at themodernmanager.com/shop.


Fall is here and for many of our organizations, that means time for annual planning. Under normal circumstances this might mean spending a few days off-site or a few hours in planning meetings. But this year is different. In the midst of a global pandemic, it can feel almost ridiculous to even attempt annual planning. Yet we still need goals, strategies and plan to align us as we move into the next year.


With so much unknown about everything from the economy to our daily lives, the traditional methods of planning simply won’t suffice. Here are three approaches teams and individuals can use to increase the accuracy, flexibility, and usefulness of goals and plans during times of uncertainty.


#1: SHORTEN THE PLANNING TIMELINE


According to authors Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington in their book The 12 Week Year, suggest that annual planning is never the optimal planning timeline regardless of uncertainty. Instead, they recommend 12 week planning periods that allow more accuracy in forecasting and urgency in action.


With a three month projection, it’s much easier to predict what the world will look like and what your team is reasonably able to accomplish. In addition, because the end is in sight from the very beginning, you are less likely to delay action. We have little time to spare which reduces distractions and complacency that can occur when the timeline is so distant.


If you’ve already set annual goals or your organization requires annual goals, consider the 12 week planning as critical milestones. They will serve a similar function and by sharing them with your boss and team members, you set shared expectations of what you believe is possible given the current circumstances.


#2: CREATE SCENARIOS AND EXPLICIT ASSUMPTIONS


Scenario planning is a much beloved business tool by many organizational leaders. In times of great uncertainty, teams can use scenario planning to explore their assumptions about the future and brainstorm various goals or initiatives best suited to each situation.


By working through scenarios as a team, you are able to align around the assumptions and circumstances that your goals and plans are based on. For example, even if people disagree about when a vaccine will be available, if you are explicit that your plans assume a vaccine in March, you are all able to make decisions within the same context. This can reduce complications and conflict going forward.


Along with each scenario, you may want to identify indicators that will help you confirm or upend your assumptions earlier rather than later. The sooner you know the accuracy of your predictions, the faster you’ll be able to pivot or double down. For example, the timing of a vaccine could be projected weeks if not months in advance given the FDA pipeline. The likelihood of schools moving 100% online could be reasonably projected based on positivity rates in a given area. By regularly checking these indicators, teams can adjust their plans proactively.


An alternative way to use scenario plans is to look across the multiple situations for activities or goals that are consistent regardless of the assumptions or context. By identifying what actions are unlikely to change, you reassure your team and encourage them to invest their full energy because they know their efforts won't go to waste.


#3: SET MINIMUM, TARGET, AND OPTIMAL GOALS


One of my favorite weight-loss learnings is that it’s better to have a goal range than a goal weight. By setting a range, we expand the zone within which we can feel good about what we’ve accomplished. This is especially helpful when we’re uncertain of how much time or capacity we really have, how many new customers we’ll have, or what we’ll be allowed to do because of COVID precautions.


I prefer a tiered range that sets a minimum, target and optimal goals. The minimum could be the least you’d be comfortable with or the very bottom of what is needed to stay in business. The target is what you believe is reasonable while the optimal is what you’d strive for in normal conditions.


By having minimum, target and optimal goals you can set expectations for your team and your boss. If they know what you are aiming for, and the uncertainty that surrounds it, it’s easier to have a potentially tough conversation to let them know if you’re not going to hit the target.


If your team members are setting their own goals, encourage them to bring set minimum, target and optimal goals as well.


COMMUNICATE AND STAY FLEXIBLE


No matter what goals or plans you set, be sure to stay in regular communication with your colleagues. If you learn something about your capacity, if the situation changes, if new information comes out about COVID, talk with your team and your boss about what this means for your goals and plans. And, encourage them to do the same so you can all stay as aligned as possible.


Remember, all your goals and plans are simply best guesses. This is a time to embrace flexibility, knowing that we’re all just trying to do our best given these crazy circumstances we’re living through.


Get the full episode guides when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at themodernmanager.com/join. Or, purchase individual episode guides at themodernmanager.com/shop to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.


This article was based on episode 128 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

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