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Do you plan in the shower Featured

9:46am EDT July 22, 2002

Do you do your planning in the shower? Planning is planning, isn’t it? When you wake up and plan your day, you anticipate opportunities, obligations, commitments, wants, needs, etc.

You make a list, mentally, on paper or in your hand-held computer, then play the game of completing the tasks that take you through the day.

Organizational planning is conceptually not so different, except that the planner needs to be more systematic and thorough. In this month’s column, I will sketch out a comprehensive overview of the planning process, and will elaborate in the coming months. This column provides the framework for that series — and your planning for years to come.

To grasp the simultaneous dichotomy of simplicity and complexity that is business planning, consider two comparable businesses, one which uses a simple plan and the other which conducts a systematic and thorough data collection process.

For this exercise, imagine your organization is more systematic than your competitor’s. Be aware that this process is not linear, but the act of writing and reading is, so our journey is necessarily misrepresentative of the actual planning process. In reality, many of these data collection activities would occur simultaneously.

To start, let’s gather data about the environment. In planning literature, we refer not just to the ecological environment, but to the political, regulatory, demographic, technological and social milieu that make up the context in which all organizations thrive.

If your business is more knowledgeable about, say, the demographic expectations of the industry for the coming decade, you can appreciate that your organization will be better able to anticipate and react to changes. You will not suffer as many surprises as your competition. If planning were nothing more that just gathering this kind of data, it would be invaluable.

Next, imagine you know more about your customers than your competition. If you understand the needs and wants of your current and future customers, clearly you would have an advantage over your competitor. Imagine you know more about your competitors than they know about you. Industrial espionage, so to speak, provides invaluable data with which to act.

A ubiquitous buzzword today is benchmarking. To me, benchmarking is really creative theft. Imagine that your firm systematically gathered better ideas about how to improve your organization’s processes and you implemented them, but your dead-in-the-water competitor did not.

Slowly but surely, you would get better, create higher quality and lower your costs. Eventually, you would grow market share and, quite possibly, own the competition. I would advise creatively benchmarking to compare your organization to organizations in other industries that share similar processes but which are not direct competitors. Both parties benefit.

One of the oldest planning tools is the SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. By systematically gathering these data, you are able to make important implementation decisions. Knowing your weaknesses allows you to circumvent or eliminate them. Anticipating opportunities prepares you to react more quickly than your competitor.

The next topics are best considered together: culture, leaders and vision. Each is so important that it warrants much more space than I can devote. Suffice it to say that you must assess your corporate culture, empower your leaders and create a desirable vision for the future that draws your work force into wanting to achieve it.

Your job becomes one of managing the culture to achieve the vision.

Once you’ve gathered the data, you’re ready to decide on a strategy. Every author has his favorite cookbook list of strategies, but what is important is that you systematically assess your primary alternatives and pick a small number (one to three). You may decide that vertical integration backward is more important that horizontal diversification (buy suppliers rather than competitors).

With your newfound clarity, decide how to implement your strategy. Implementation, which can take years, is where most plans fail. It is hard work. To simplify, consider that, conceptually, your primary tools are your people, your systems or processes and your formal organization.

Monitor your progress and feed back into the planning process what you learn — in a timely enough fashion to modify if it isn’t going the way you planned. You may need more sales effort or less advertising, more training in something, etc.

Now retrace our mental exercise: If you systematically plan and implement, but your competition does not, the outcome is obvious. Similarly, if your competition does so but you don’t, the outcome is reversed.

If you both plan, the outcome will largely be based on the quality of your planning process. I wish for you the first, admonish you not to let the second happen, and exhort you to improve if the third is your life.

Best of (no luck here) planning to you.

Lance Kurke, PhD., is president of Kurke & Associates, Inc., a Pittsburgh-based strategic planning firm. He is the recently appointed president of the CEO Club of Pittsburgh and serves on the faculty of the business school at Duquesne University and as an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Reach him at (412) 281-2930 or at kurke@msn.com.