It is planning season when management teams work to develop the roadmap for the coming year.

The truth is that it is hard to do more than two or three big things at a time, no matter how large you are.

So it is important to put all of the things that the business needs or wants to do on the table and have a vigorous debate about them and then pick a few priorities to focus on.

Saying no to things that you really want to do is the telltale sign of a good planning process. Saying yes to too many things is the telltale sign of a poor planning process.

What makes this process particularly hard is that there are often a few things that the business has to do and there is no way to delay them. These must do efforts can often crowd out the should do projects and that leads to a lack of forward progress.

The lens through which I evaluate plans is as follows. First there should be a few well defined priorities. I like two or three but four can work. Five starts to be a problem. At least one and possibly two should be must do things the existing business requires and cannot be put off. And there should be at least one big new effort that will move the business forward.

Planning is so important. When you get the plan right, execution becomes so much easier. I have found that poor execution is most often a function of poor planning and trying to do too much without clear priorities. Even the strongest operators struggle in a situation like that.


Comments (Archived):

  1. William Mougayar

    “Plan your work, and work your plan” – Napoleon Hill

    1. jason wright

      I’m sure it sounds even better in French.

  2. Vinish Garg

    Although I am not a big fan of business coaches but I have seen a few founders gaining so much from such coaches. Priorities are like shadow-accountability, founders struggle on priorities when they are not really answerable to anyone till they raise a round.

  3. Anne Libby

    Yes. And, the same thing is true for people who work for you, too. In the absence of 3-4 clear goals, any success will be random — or “success” will be based on something that may not be related to performance.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Great advice, Anne.Could have used this when hiring a couple of years ago. At a recent workshop for recruiting firm owners, I shared my embarrassment at such poor hiring given that I help others hire brilliantly (not uncommon for people in my role).The workshop leader astutely observed that it wasn’t poor hiring but a poor system of onboarding (which included goal-setting). Will be much better prepared for the next round.My first hire (still with me after more than five years) spoiled me.

      1. Anne Libby

        There’s a book I love on this topic, you’ve probably seen it, the First 90 Days because it’s the bible for new hires. Its wisdom can be reverse-engineered by hiring managers, too…

  4. awaldstein

    Amen to this.The process of getting to the priorities is as important as the priorities themselves when you need broad teams to make then their own.

  5. Girish Mehta

    “Plans are nothing, Planning is everything”. – Eisenhower.The value is in the rigor, discipline and ownership of the Planning process. Then, when the inevitable “Plan, Meet reality” happens (and it will), the team is unfazed and ready to course-correct.

    1. jason wright

      “…first contact with the enemy”. 🙂

      1. JLM

        .In really elite military units, you plan at a very high level. There are people whose real expertise is only the planning, training, logistics to support operations.A raid like the one that took out the Caliph had a map, a diagram at a huge scale, pictures of everything blown up, a sand table, a few mockups of doors, the wall, and assignments to two levels of depth (meaning if somebody got killed or wounded there were two levels of men to take up that man’s role).It might even have had a full scale mockup, but I doubt it because of the timing.The raiders practiced landing, disembarking, re-embarking a million times — every act was choreographed like ballet.They did walk throughs, chalk talks, run throughs, full scale dress rehearsals. Every time they learned something, modified something, smoothed off an edge.There were extra men in case of casualties. There were medics. There was everything that could possibly be done to get rid of the execution risk.The Delta guys are the best of the best. The Rangers are the best ground troops in the US Army (Marine Force Recon is their equal).Every guy on that raid was a salty, seasoned warrior.When the go order is given, your heart still starts beating faster and the physical situation changes because of the reality of the tension. Stuff you would never think of doing jumps into your mind because of the change in tempo. You have to talk yourself down off the ledge.Then, when you get there you find out the enemy gets a vote in all of this stuff. On raids like this, it is not so pronounced because the battle space is so constrained and there is no maneuver room, but in large unit operations, the whole plan can go to shit in 5 minutes.In these elite units, it is not just the raw material. It is the training, the battle drill, and the planning.The same thing is true in business. A company can become an elite company, can create a substantial “execution advantage” because of how they plan and execute.I used to always be on top of my numbers. I used to get them 3 business days after the end of the month — complete GAAP statements, all journal entries made. The management accounting (which is what I really wanted) would be there at the same time.I had two really good CFOs in 33 years of CEO-ing. Those two used to bitch, bitch, bitch that I was unrealistic, but I used to get my numbers on time.Planning and execution is what you make of it.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        1. Richard

          I have no experience with the military other than my great uncles D day experience and my fathers non-combat service. My question is simple – where did the America ability to run a military come from ? And how do we continue to out perform ? There is no American company that has run so well for this long. Nor is there another element of government agency that had been run with such distinction? What is the secret sauce?

  6. JLM

    .Amen to this.In working with CEOs, one of the big things that can be quickly and immediately changed is the quality of planning both for the company and the CEO. Amongst weak or new CEOs the greatest obvious shortcoming is the inability to plan or the lack of a plan.I cannot begin to describe the magnitude of improvement when a CEO and a company goes through a rigorous planning process and is able to drink it in before Christmas.It is the mark of a “pantser” v a professional.A pantser does everything by the seat of their pants. They have to make their ultimate plans on the fly, under pressure, and in a reactive mode. The quality of their plans is compromised.Of all the big successes I have seen in those I have coached, the biggest one was a company whose CEO made a dramatic transformation in the manner of creating their plan. Great planning. Great buy in. And, then, an offsite to set the plan with the management.This one thing contributed to that company and that CEO standing in front of the pay window with a dump truck to haul away the money when they liquidated.Boards are notoriously lax in requiring plans. It should be an absolute and the CEO’s objectives and annual Performance Appraisal should have the plan front and center.When I get called in by a VC to look at a troubled company, I never, ever find a decent plan and both the VC and the CEO have a hard time finding it.The plan has to be both strategic (the view from 30,000 feet) and tactical (the view from 10,000 feet). This requires a company plan (strategic) and a departmental/discipline plan (tactical).These plans then are subdivided into the individual objectives of the top management.As a CEO for 33 years, I used to love to work on the plan and to keep score using it.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  7. karen_e

    The vigorous debate part is so crucial. If communication skills aren’t sharpened at this stage, well…!

  8. jason wright

    What aspect of this process did WeWork not get wrong?

    1. JLM

      .There was plenty wrong with WeWork from the beginning other than it was a cult of personality.Mort Zuckerman (former CEO, Boston Properties), as knowledgeable a real estate guy as walks the planet, was an investor.Fortune magazine in 2016 anointed WeWork as one of three unicorns to BET AGAINST.The SoftBank guy, Masayoshi Son, told Adam Neumann his plan wasn’t aggressive enough. Stop — right there. That was the moment the shit hit the fan. Do not give crack addicts crack.It was a total board oversight failure — Pro tip: Never, ever, ever let a VC funded CEO buy a Gulfstream G650 with your money. Small thing. Big thing. Dumb thing.As a commercial real estate guy myself who had built high rises, the second I got a whiff of WeWork, I was telling people it was a disaster. Anybody with a brain and 90 minutes of real estate experience could smell that POS from a thousand miles away.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

      1. jason wright

        Watched this yesterday. Illuminating;…6:45 – Comparison with IWG.7:30 – IWG CEO, scratching his head.

        1. JLM

          .IMG doesn’t own the real estate. The provide a service like SaaS.WeWork wanted to own the real estate. They were a real estate company.I have predicted — I think on AVC — that IMG will ultimately pick up the pieces from WeWork.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          1. jason wright

            WW, after HMG, is the biggest landlord in London. That says a lot about WW’s rate of growth.The Duke of Westminster’s London property portfolio is from another age.

          2. Rick Mason

            I saw some of this behavior in startups in the frothy late nineties, personally knew some of the players. Masayoshi Son lived through those times, fought back hard and was a dotcom crash survivor. It totally stuns me that he had apparently forgotten some of the lessons those of us in business during that time learned.

        2. Donna Brewington White

          This was illuminating–thank you. I ignored IWG (Regus) because it seemed so old school. Have been exploring the idea of a WeWork office for over a year — looked at different locations and close to making a decision. (Need to be able to access work- and meeting spaces in various locations.) But this week, due to issues with my home office, needed a private office close to home at a moment’s notice for video interviews and ended up at Regus. Had an astonishing experience. I may be sold.Admittedly, seeing a Regus in Windsor/Eton a couple of summers ago captured my imagination.

  9. Mike

    When everything is a priority, nothing is, But when you are working on a new venture, project or intiative be prepared for goals to shift as the dynamics of the situation shift. Building something new is a series of experiments, most of which fail. When you find something that works you keep doing more of that, and optimize. I think this is part of what can make start ups, boot strapped or skunk works projects so efficient. The lack of resources forces prioritization. You just don’t have enough resources (time or money) to focus on more than a few key goals, and they need to be value driving.I’m of the opinion that planning season is year round so you want something lean and efficient, at least for new businesses or initiatives. The plan works for you and the organization, not the other way around. It needs to deliver a good ROI just like every other investment of time or money.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      The idea of a “series of experiments” is freeing but balancing that with runway…

      1. Mike

        I believe the idea is to learn from the experimentation, successes and failures. If its a new business venture it probably needs to be accelerated, for the reasons you point out. Many ideas never make it. Planning and prioritization is not sufficient to guarantee success, but I would argue it is necessary to help stack the odds in your favor.

        1. Donna Brewington White

          Point well taken. Thanks.

  10. gmalov

    Great advice; being more focused on a few things allows greater attention to planning, resource alignment, and improving execution. We all find staying focused is an essential discipline that contributes to successful execution.I’ve worked for several companies, spent quite a bit of time studying how one company executes better than the other specifically, in areas of product development, work quality and GTM success. Two factors stand out to me: (1) managing time and (2) deviation. The first is centered around efficiency the second is really about forces behind distractions.Over my experience, setting priorities is one side of the equation, the other is how you create a great culture/system that avoids the unintended tasks and unexpected results.

  11. Donna Brewington White

    This is a gem. Simple, straightforward advice like this makes it easier to get started without the feeling of being overwhelmed. The “lens” that you share is especially helpful.

  12. Donna Brewington White

    Have not seen this. Ordering. Thank you!

  13. JamesHRH

    Good post.

  14. sigmaalgebra

    I can see Trump only via the Internet, but it looks to me like he has about 20 MUST DO things a day: Broadly:He has one heck of a travel and speaking schedule, and he has to show up with names of all the locals he is to mention and praise, and he has to be sure everything from meals to Air Force One is all in place. A lot of the traveling is not for speaking but for private meetings, e.g., in the EU, G-8, where he has to respond to issues.He has one heck of a schedule communicating with foreign leaders, dozens of them really important plus more.He has to keep the Executive Branch running via his staff and cabinet,handle resignations and appointments.He has to handle the media, where nearly all of it is fake news with nearly daily made-up, cooked-up, faked-up issues deliberately designed for him to trip-up.He has to handle unexpected events — hurricanes, wild fires, earthquakes, floods, wack-os shooting up schools, churches, shopping malls, etc.He has to handle Nasty Nancy, Shifty Schiff, various absurd whistle blowers political enemy judges siding with wack-o legal teams out to attack him..He has to negotiate with South Korea, North Korea, Japan, China, the EU, Turkey, Iran, Mexico, Canada, Squatemalla, India, Pukistan, etc.He has to wind down in Syria, Iraq, Akrapistan.He has to handle The Wall and floods of illegal immigrants with tons of heroin and even fentanyl.He has to keep the economy going by reducing regulations, talking the Fed into providing enough money, planning more tax breaks, watching for a wide range of possible problems, etc.Plus lots more.It’s a lot more than just three or four.I can guess it was more than just three or four even for Melania getting ready for the football game. Look at the pictures — that was a LOT of work.