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How to Modernize Your Strategy with Agile Planning

By Joseph Krause

How to Modernize Your Strategy with Agile Planning

By Joe Krause

Just like perms, business trends go in and out of style.

You’d be hard-pressed to walk into the conference room of any organization today and not hear the phrase “we need to be more agile.” Admittedly, if you walked into that same conference room 5 years ago however, you would’ve heard, “we need to be more lean.”

Different terms, slightly different concepts – more on that below. Of course, there are strict indoctrinations that accompany both Lean and Agile specifically (note the capitalization). But for the majority of the business world, we glom onto these words as ideologies that make our work more effective with fewer roadblocks.

As you sift through history, you’ll find similar work concepts. The common theme among them is to focus on initiatives that keep driving the most positive change with the fewest amount of resources.

The shift from lean to agile is happening whether we’re ready or not. The good news is – since we’ve now collectively spent years driving lean initiatives as a business community, we can use that experience to provide context for our agile journey.

While not every organization drives fast-paced (mostly software) projects, every organization has plans. Whether it’s a strategic, operational, or transformation plan, these plans are our roadmaps to our organization’s future. We can use the iterative and incremental approach of agile methodology and create our own hybrid of agile planning.

Managing change to move to agile planning is daunting, but with the right approach, there are ways you can adapt your plan execution process to be more effective with principles of agile planning.

Lean Planning vs. Agile Planning

I’m currently attending business school at Rutgers University and one of my professors is the former CFO and Chief Supply Chain Officer of Schindler Elevator. Professor John Impellizzeri spent close to 25 years in the C-suite. He shared with the class the epitome of the apprehension about making a full leap from “lean” to “agile” methodologies.

Every senior leader loves the idea of lean because it saves money. They’re apprehensive about agile because it costs money.

Let’s make these pros and cons a bit more clear.

Yes, lean methodologies are obsessed with reducing waste (or “muda”) to deliver product quickly, which acts mostly as a cost-cutting measure for companies and provides a path to fast revenue. Yes, agile methodologies value collaboration and quick response to change – which can require a lot of unforeseen changes in budget along the way, but results in a more customer-focused product. They are often pitted against each other because of this fundamental difference.

It’s likely one is a better fit for your product or industry than the other, and only you know what’s best for your specific organization. But, consider looking at the benefits of agile through a different lens before sticking with the status quo of lean.

Why Start Agile Planning Now?

The truth is, as we stand today, 49% of plans don’t achieve desired results.

67% of well-formulated strategies fail due to poor execution.

Something isn’t working.

If we, as a collective business community, have been using lean-based plan execution habits for the past few years and aren’t seeing an improvement – maybe it’s time to switch to agile planning.

Agile Planning is Better Suited for Today’s Fast-Paced Environment

Harvard Business Review recently published an article titled, “Planning Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy of Agile” written by Alessandro Di Fiore that contends the traditional planning model – decisions based solely on hard data (i.e. lean planning) – is dead and we need to move into a new era of agile planning.

(Just a note – I’m never a fan of saying something is “dead,” but I respect the article’s attempt to get us out of our comfort zone.)

Today’s market is far too fast-developing to be successful with traditional planning. While most like to think we can control every variable and make decisions based solely on hard data ahead of time, competitors and the surrounding world are too turbulent to stay on a path we carved out even 6 months ago. Organizations must constantly adapt, or risk falling victim to the planning fallacy, losing revenue, and therefore failing out of the market.

Lean planning isn’t always ineffective, but agile planning might be a better fit for most of today’s global business climate.

4 Principles of Agile Planning

In the HBR article, Di Fiore states that agile planning has 4 key characteristics:

  • Frameworks and tools able to deal with a future that will be different
  • The ability to cope with more frequent and dynamic changes
  • The need for quality time to be invested for a true strategic conversation rather than simply being a numbers game
  • Resources and funds are available in a flexible way for emerging opportunities

To be clear, agile planning shouldn’t shift your entire business strategy with the tides of change. There’s a tough balance between protecting the overall goals of your plan, and reserving the right to change the path by which you get there.

All of these agile planning principles support a strong vision of the future, while maintaining the ability to call an audible as consumers, markets, and competitors change their strategies.

Agile planning is all about a focus on qualitative data, not just numbers. Reacting to the stories of customers, network connections, and even employees can lead to feedback that can immediately be incorporated into agile plan execution.

How to Move Towards Agile Planning in Your Organization

It may seem daunting or expensive, but agile planning is an emergent trend that can truly catapult you past companies that aren’t paying attention to the human element.

Following are 3 small adjustments to introduce to your team to start to warm up to agile thinking – and eventually – agile plan execution.

1. Start Creating a Culture of Innovation 

Part of the AchieveIt onboarding process is walking our clients through an exercise to figure out which stage of cultural evolution they’re in. The 4th and final stage is called a Culture of Innovation. The key indicator of operating in this ideal stage are that you’ve broken down the rigid nature of strategic planning and you reserve the right to make changes to your plan as market conditions dictate. That sounds eerily similar to agile planning, right? Stage 4 of an organization’s strategy execution culture is all about being agile, yes – but it’s reliant upon a solid planning process established in the earlier stages.

So, you can’t start with innovation. You must have a strong base of historical commitment to execution. However, you can start fueling creativity and fearlessness in your organization. Encourage and reward new ideas. Try new techniques in sprints with well-defined budgets and success measures. Track your progress over a short, defined term, analyze your outcomes against your predetermined desired results, and make a quick call as to whether or not you should continue. Big innovation starts with small ideas.

2. Split the Difference Between Traditional and Agile Planning…At First

In the HBR article, Di Fiore asks the reader to draw a Venn Diagram with “planning” on one side and “agility” on the other. In the middle is the workable sweet spot. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

I’ve seen firsthand what can happen when you jump into any single methodology with both feet. If you claim that either traditional strategic planning is dead or agile planning is the only true way – you’d be wrong. Your company’s process and culture are unique. Borrow from different methodologies to create your own methodology that works for your team.

However – to pick a side – after being part of hundreds of different planning cycles of companies of all sizes and industries, I would agree that most organizations can benefit from being more agile. Organizations need the ability to cope with frequent changes without having to wait to create a new plan at the end of the year to implement already-outdated processes.

Start by keeping your annual or multi-year plan as-is, but insert regular frequent check-ins along the way (if you don’t already). Maybe try executing a single project plan with an agile framework. Follow up with your team regularly and assess results along the way. This will make for a healthier feedback loop and help start to allocate your resources more effectively by making small adjustments.

So, you can’t start with innovation. You must have a strong base of historical commitment to execution. However, you can start fueling creativity and fearlessness in your organization. Encourage and reward new ideas. Try new techniques in sprints with well-defined budgets and success measures. Track your progress over a short, defined term, analyze your outcomes against your predetermined desired results, and make a quick call as to whether or not you should continue. Big innovation starts with small ideas.

3. Begin Collecting More Soft Data

You only have half of the story you need to make decisions if all you have is hard data. Di Fiore states that every planning process needs to “make use of both limitless hard data and human judgment.” Agility is all about incorporating the human element to the equation. Along with traditional data, verbal feedback and context are also causing organizations to pivot.

One of our mantras at AchieveIt is, “we need quantitative and qualitative data to make informed decisions.” You absolutely need both quantitative and qualitative data in order to get a true sense of how your plan is progressing against your targets. Hard data doesn’t tell a story without context. Hard data also relies heavily on the past, with the assumption that the past will act like the future. This is dangerous. You need human judgement to make the picture of the future clearer and you’ll make better decisions because of it.

Your first steps towards incorporating human data into your plan is to start by adding a comment field to your status reports. Ask for your employees providing updates to explain why the metric is what it is, what progress was most recently made, and what the next steps are. This context around your data is an easy way to start collecting non-numerical feedback to start framing the plan execution conversation around more actionable items.

Modern Planning is Agile Planning

Change management is overwhelming. Implementing agile practices will be hard work. But in order to remain competitive in your organization’s field, you must enable your team to become readily responsive to quantitative and qualitative factors. Start by adding in some small principles of agility and flexibility into the way your team functions day-to-day and organically grow into agile planning by building up a culture of execution.

Project Management Tools Don’t Help Execute Strategic Plans

By Joseph Krause

Project Management Tools Don’t Help Execute Strategic Plans

Yep, you read that right. Project management tools are not built to help execute strategy. Yes, both strategic plans and projects have tasks that need to be completed by certain deadlines, tracking metrics, and task owners. PM and strategic plan leaders need software and a process that help put rigor around accountability and providing updates – but the two types of plan execution are not created equal.

I was reading an article posted by the Brightline Initiative titled, “Strategic Initiative Management: The PMO Imperative” which touches upon the importance of having a project management office within your organization.

Based on my experience in the plan execution space, I would wholeheartedly agree with their assessment. If you don’t have folks dedicated to the execution of your strategic initiatives, they won’t get done. Project Management leaders can help make sure those strategic initiatives get done.

The article contends that a PMO does four critical things:

1) Focus on Critical Initiatives
2) Institute Smart and Simple Processes
3) Foster Talent and Capabilities
4) Encourage a Culture of Change

Points 1 and 2 really have me thinking about how project management tools interact with strategy execution, and where they differ.

Plan Execution = Revenue

In this piece, the authors quote another article originally published by the Boston Consulting Group in 2013 which shows a direct connection between organizational financial performance and the percentage of strategic initiatives executed. The authors contend that if you execute 70% of your plan, your financial performance would be considered well above average against your peers.

Think about that for a moment. Even if you leave 30% of your plan “on the table,” you’d still experience amazing results. This is realistic; even the best plans aren’t executed in full; successful leaders adapt to moving targets and changing markets along the way.

Conversely, if you only execute 30% of your initiatives, your financial performance would be well below average compared to your peers. Unfortunately, this is the norm. Strategies are considered “nice-to-haves,” only executed after all your ongoing projects and operations. They’re made up of the initiatives that help propel your organization into the future, so it’s hard to focus on the tangible results.

Pro Tip: Make sure you use this statistic the next time someone tries to tell you that they don’t have time to focus on strategy! Innovation is the best way to lead your market.

A PMO in your organization can help establish some focus on critical initiatives, since employees are already in the process of executing. But using PM tools to do it can be very difficult.

The Problem with PM Tools

So, PMOs and better processes can help execute strategic plans. However, what about PM software?

As you would imagine, project management or project portfolio management tools are the logical choices for PMO professionals.

For some of you, the mere mention of project management tools conjures visions of Gantt Charts and discussions around Critical Path. If you were to ask a project manager how the construction of your new free-standing ER is going, they can update you on the most intricate details using the aforementioned tools.

Now, here’s the catch.

What would happen if your executive needed a dashboard of all your most important strategic initiatives? They don’t need the detailed metrics or status updates; they need an overall view of how all resources and departments are working together to produce results. Your CEO just needs to know how far off track you are to know where to allocate more resources. Executives need to be able to tell at-a-glance where they’re succeeded so they can analyze what’s working, rinse, and repeat.

Would your PM tools be able to provide that? Or would the only thing your COO be able to see be a detailed timeline of who has completed what task in how much time?

Strategic Initiatives by their very nature are a collection of KPIs and projects. If you can’t make sense of all those moving parts, you can’t determine your performance.

Our customers use AchieveIt to ensure you don’t need an act of congress to get an answer to the question, “How are we doing?” Our software platform helps leaders holistically look at plan execution across the enterprise without the low-level detail of PM tools.

Let AchieveIt Help with Your Enterprise Plan Tracking

Ask yourself the question, “How are we doing with our strategic plan?”

What’s your answer?

If the answer is “I don’t know,” you need to reexamine the tools you’re using to execute on your plan. You need to use the right tool for the right job, and project management tools are not cut out for strategy execution.

People Don’t Resist Change; They Resist the Change Management Process

By Joseph Krause

People Don’t Resist Change; They Resist the Change Management Process

Change management is all about expectation setting and perspective.

When you can know for a fact that there’s money or some other positive outcome on the other side of change, you don’t need to turn to your bag of tricks to get people bought in. When you frame up the conversation from the beginning that a finely monitored, easily tracked process will help your team and organization “win the lottery” and be able to measure the results, you’ll get change champions leading the parade to the other side of the process change.

Positioning Change as Inherently Good

I owe this recent change in perspective on change management to Gregory North from Globe North. I recently had the pleasure of attending the OpEx business transformation conference, and the topic of change management was on everyone’s minds. Greg kicked off the first day with a keynote and this quick group exercise.

He asked the room, “Raise your hand if you feel that people naturally resist change.” As you would suspect from a room full of VPs of Operation and other change management professionals, 99% of the hands in the room shot up into the air.

Greg then proceeded to say, “What if I told you that I had a check for $25 million dollars in my left pocket and a letter from the Secretary of the Treasury in my right pocket stating the money was tax free. Raise your hand if you think that $25 million dollars would change your life.” Everyone’s hands shot up into the air once again.

Greg told everyone to keep their hands up and asked, “Everyone who wouldn’t take the money, put your hand down.” No one lowered their hand.

Greg laughed a bit and said, “You all just told me that people naturally resist change. Yet, when I told you that I would give you life-changing money, every one of would still take that money.”

We tend to resist change we perceive as negative.

Learning from OpEx Professionals

The OpEx conference consisted of professionals dedicated to the idea of organizational change. I found myself in the trenches on the front lines of change the minds and hearts of individuals for the overall good of an organization.

Everyone was exchanging war stories of people being dragged, kicking and screaming into a new change or process. Most of the stories centered around the idea that people tend to get ingrained in their routine and if you’re proposing a change, you may encounter a general lack of excitement.

How do you overcome this issue?

Prioritize Communicating Expectations at the Individual Level

Your main tactic as a change management agent in your organization is to give employees a clear understanding of 1. how their responsibilities will change from the status quo at an individual level, 2. how their new tasks will affect the company as a whole, and 3. how great the outcome will be on the enterprise scale.

Paul Strebel touched on this topic in an article from 1996 (yes, people have been dealing with change management issues since the 90s). Strebel refers to this idea as the idea of a “personal compact.” Basically, the personal compact is the relationship between the individual employee and their duties to the organization.

Paul writes, “…[C]orporate change initiatives, whether proactive or reactive, alter [the personal compacts’] terms. Unless managers define new terms and persuade employees to accept them, it is unrealistic for managers to expect employees fully to buy into changes that alter the status quo.”

How often are you communicating about the changes your proposing?

Set a Regular Cadence for Organization-wide Communication

Assuming you already have a way to track your transformation plan, so you can easily see alignment, ownership, and areas that need attention, communication is the next all-important part of your change management process. When you have a process like this in place, collecting data and running status meetings becomes quicker and more efficient, so you can make better decisions.

In my experience, most organizations are sharing the results of their strategic plan twice a year, if that. That’s not frequent enough.

If your strategic plan outlines the change you’re proposing for your organization and you’re not consistently reviewing it, you run the risk of violating your employees’ personal compacts.

Take the time to communicate with your employees to get buy-in from the front lines, and reinforce it with communication and encouragement from your executive level.

Reexamine Your Plan for Maximum Effectiveness

To further drive the point home, The Harvard Business Review examined why people tend to resist change.

The one reason outlined is excess uncertainty.

The author of the article, Rosabeth Moss Kanter states that, “to overcome inertia requires a sense of safety as well as an inspiring vision. Leaders should create certainty of process, with clear, simple steps and timetables.”

Would you classify your plan as one with certainty of process, clear steps, and timetables? If not, why not?

Keep Adapting

Once you’ve optimized your plan to make it fully executable, communicated expectations, and painted a picture of a positive outcome, is that all you need to do? No. Your work is never done.

And the great news is – it isn’t possible to overshare. You can’t over-communicate expectations or results. The only way to win the war against teams who think they’re averse to change is to get rid of any excess uncertainty. Only then can you get the buy-in you want on your change initiatives.

The Only Two Questions You Need to Build Your Strategic Plan

By Joseph Krause

The Only Two Questions You Need to Build Your Strategic Plan

For business leaders, summer marks the official kick-off of planning season. For those organizations with fiscal years that begin on July 1st, even the longer days still don’t seem to create enough hours for those last-minute approvals to finalize your various strategic and operational plans.

During brainstorming, mapping, and organization, executives will inevitably reach a roadblock in the plan creation process. You’re not alone – it’s difficult to put the final touches on such a cumbersome plan that will guarantee most of your initiatives will see the finish line next year.

Then, once you have your plan finalized (whether it’s operational, strategic, or project management), what are some cultural changes you can champion to ensure its execution?

If you’re up against the clock, here’s a simple, tested method we use at AchieveIt to quickly finalize your plan content and motivate your teams.

All Strategic Plans Should Answer “How?” and “Why?”

We always recommend taking the time to carefully optimize your plan with a room full of stakeholders. I have a lot of experience sitting in conference rooms, going over plans line by line with a table full of executives and bringing to light many missing items that make plans effective: due dates, accountability, success metrics, plan alignment, etc. It’s better to work this way to avoid becoming a victim of the Planning Fallacy. However, if you need to have your plan prepped and ready for execution tomorrow – I recommend using the simple gut-check described below.

In its purest form, planning comes down to two main questions.

How? and Why?

AchieveIt diagram for plan building asking how and why by plan tier

Let me show you how to apply these two questions through an example:

1. Define Your Focus

Let’s say you work for a healthcare organization. You’re in the process of developing your plans.

The top level of your plan is most likely called an area of focus, pillar, or strategic priority. (The terminology doesn’t matter; what those words represent is what’s important to the organization.)

If someone were to say, “What are you focused on this year?” you might reply with: safety, quality, patient satisfaction, and growth.

2. How: Build Out the Measurements

Now that you’ve defined your focus, it’s time to build out the details of what you’re going to do in each of those areas of focus to create the change you wish to see. This is where you ask yourself, “How?”

If your area of focus is safety, how are you going to know you’ve definitely improved in that area?

I would recommend leveraging quantitative measures whenever possible to define success. e.g. “Decrease harm events by 15%” would be a perfect way to know if you’ve improved safety.

Alternatively, you can call this level of your plan: measures, objectives, or key performance indicators.

3. How: Define Activities and Resources

Now that you’ve established success criteria in the form of objectives or KPIs, how will you ensure you reduce harm events by 15%? What activities will help you get to your 15% goal?

These actions will tier down as you fill in the specifics. You might, for instance, select an initiative that aims to start holding daily safety huddles in each service line. Since implementing lean thinking and daily huddles is a big undertaking, ask yourself how you will launch the roll-out of those huddles. Start by defining action items, like picking a safety champion in each service line. How will you choose each safety champion? (Keep building down from here.)

If you ask yourself how at every level in your hierarchy, you’ll be able to build the details of your plan in no time.

4. Why: Check Your Work

Okay, let’s recap what we defined above before applying our next step:

1) Area of Focus: Safety
2) Objective: Reduce harm events by 15%
3) Initiative: Implement daily safety huddles in each service line
4) Action Item: Pick a safety champion from each service line

Why helps you check your work. If your plan is built properly, every time you ask yourself why, the answer should be the next level up in your plan:

Why should we pick a safety champion for each service line? To help roll out the practice of daily safety huddles.

Why are we implementing daily safety huddles in each service line? In order to help decrease harm events by 15%.

Why do we want to see that reduction? We want to improve safety.

The Power of “Why” in Strategic Planning

The most powerful takeaway?

Asking why also ensures that everyone in your organization completely understands the connection between their work and the organizational strategy.

This is key.

If your entire organization is aligned, all forces will be applied in the same direction, pushing towards accomplishing the same great things you planned together.

If every employee understands the why behind every task – from filing insurance claims to building parking decks to sterilizing tools for spinal surgery – your organization can become culturally united and celebrate victories, large and small, together.

Conduct the How & Why Test Against Your Strategic Plan

Try asking how as you move down your plan, and why as you move up your plan. If you have a hard time aligning a tier to the one above it, you’ve found a hole in your plan that needs patching.

Using this method, I think you’ll find it will allow you to build an effective and compelling plan of any kind that is primed for execution. Now, as a business leader, read how other executives like you are helping sustain organizational change.

How Executives Help Sustain Organizational Change

By Joseph Krause

How Executives Help Sustain Organizational Change

As a leader in your organization, you understand the “big two” of successful plan execution: 1. Reliable, effective plan formulation, and 2. An established execution process.

However, as you cruise through thought capital blogs to find the reason why your organization’s results are still less than ideal, how often do you read about the third element of successful plan execution – sustainment?

I’ve been thinking lately about what happens after you’ve effectively executed your strategy. How do you sustain the change you’ve created so that you don’t slip back into old habits? You might achieve your short-term goals, but without a plan for operationalizing those newly formed habits and processes that earned results, how do you suspect your metrics will look a year later?

The more I research the topic of sustaining organizational change, the more it seems like many organizations struggle with this very issue.

As it turns out, the key to sustaining process change that produces results is a little squishier than I’d imagined. And it all falls on the shoulders of the exec to set the tone for sustaining success for the rest of the organization.

The Role of Process, Discipline, and Resources in Sustaining Change

Yes, process, discipline, and resources are important. However, even with all the resources in the world and strict process discipline, sustaining change is still a challenge.

I would compare the idea of strategy sustainment to one most people can relate to – weight loss. Many of us, at some point, have taken up a healthier lifestyle and saw the results when we stepped on the scale. You probably had a goal weight or body fat percentage in mind and, through hard work, you hit your number.

Unfortunately, after hitting that goal, it’s likely that 6 months after reaching your goal, you’ve gained weight back. This is a known phenomenon.

In an interesting article published by the New York Times in 2016, they took a look at contestants from “The Biggest Loser.” Research showed that the majority of the people on the show gained their weight back. Sustained change is hard. In this instance, there are complicated contributing factors such as metabolism and other biological circumstances, but ultimately, the habits that were formed with lots of resources and strict discipline in order to reach that initial goal were not sustained after that first successful weigh-in.

The core of this issue impacts businesses every day. But there is a way we can break the cycle.

How did we get here?

Recalibrate Your Thinking About Failure

In an excellent article published in HBR, “Stop Using the Excuse Organizational Change Is Hard,” Nick Tasler contends that our brains are already wired to think about failure.

He says that, “we assume that failure is a more likely outcome than success, and, as a result, we wrongly treat successful outcomes as flukes and bad results as irrefutable proof that change is difficult.

Does this sound familiar? I’m sure each of you can point to a bevy of examples where you chalked up a success as a fluke and a failure as inevitable. We could even call back to the statistic that’s ingrained in all of us that says 70% of all change initiatives fail.

Does this failure have anything to do with how we define success?

Yes. It’s a “chicken or the egg” argument, but it comes down to mindset.

Tasler proceeds to discuss a change management study conducted by McKinsey where they found, “A third of executives believed that their change initiatives were total successes, and another third believed that their change initiatives were more successful than unsuccessful.” But only “about one in ten admit to having been involved in a transformation that was ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ unsuccessful.”

Therefore, pointing to the McKinsey study as evidence for a 70% change initiative implementation failure rate is like saying that every time a baseball player steps up to the plate and doesn’t hit a home run, that player has “failed.”

But that isn’t true in baseball any more than it is true in organizations. The McKinsey results show that around 60% of change initiatives are somewhere between a base-hit and a home run, and only 1 in 10 are strikeouts.

Even if you’re not hitting it out of the park, your change initiatives could still be successful, if you define success as improvement. And if you set your mind to focus on seeing any improvement as the absence of failure, you could set your organization up for greater success in implementing change initiatives that work longterm.

Your team will look to you, their leader, to set the tone for success, and your chances of sustaining change will reflect that positivity.

The Key to Sustainment: A Mindset for Expecting Success

It all comes down to mindset.

In a study conducted by the University of Chicago, “researchers reminded study participants how most people do in fact successfully improve with a little bit of effort. In this study, the results were exactly opposite: study participants were quicker to notice changes for the better rather than changes for the worse. By priming people with a simple fact about the high probability of successful change, the researchers completely eliminated the negative bias.”

Think about this for a moment.

Simply reminding your stakeholders that successful change is possible, and then shouting their successes from the rooftops can redefine your entire process.

One of the crucial 4 Drivers of Execution we’ve defined is visibility. If you see change happening, communicate what you’re seeing. Create a forum where incremental improvement is shared and celebrated as success. Positive momentum is contagious and that can help executives lead the way in sustaining any strategy you choose to execute.

The Planning Fallacy: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

By Joseph Krause

The Planning Fallacy: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

When I was putting together the content for the AchieveIt webinar I hosted last week, Are You Working on the Right Initiatives? (watch on demand), I got to thinking more about why most organizations only accomplish a percentage of their initiatives. Yes, the main culprit is lack of a culture with rigor around commitment to execution. But there’s another villain in this story – and that’s optimism.

In the presentation, we referenced the “The Eisenhower Box” to describe how employees lose time to tasks that don’t help accomplish initiatives that move strategic KPIs. This urgent/important matrix helps determine the difference between items that require immediate attention or long-term focus, and items that should be delegated or ignored. Coupled with the danger of white space risk, dedicating time to the non-important items can lead to oversight of necessary plan elements. e.g. A casino distracted with choosing bathroom countertop colors might arrive at opening week before realizing no one ever applied for a liquor license.

Both plan execution antagonists – attention-demanding, non-important tasks and white space risk – have their root in the same problematic soil: The Planning Fallacy. This third productivity hindrance is the downfall of rose-colored glasses. Those of you that see the glass as half full are why the planning fallacy is so deadly to your timelines.

It’s not just the optimists who are at fault. The planning fallacy is also born out of pride, ego, and a belief that your organization is extraordinary. While that may be true in certain circumstances, when it comes to planning, think of your company as just like everybody else.

What is the Planning Fallacy?

The planning fallacy was developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979. They define the concept as, “a tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a project while knowing that similar projects have typically taken longer in the past. So it’s a combination of optimistic prediction about a particular case in the face of more general knowledge that would suggest otherwise.”

We’re all planning professionals. We pride ourselves in our ability to build plans. However, when it’s time to forecast timelines and allocate resources, we don’t use the data we have to make the best decisions.

Not one of us is exempt from the data of those who have project managed before us. No matter how hard we stare at the glass to make it half full, ignoring benchmarks will be the detriment to realistic plan execution.

What Does the Planning Fallacy Look Like in Day-to-Day Disguise?

How does the planning fallacy manifest itself in your current role?

Picture this:

You’re given a project. You start to develop your work breakdown structure. As you begin to put in your due dates, a wave of optimism washes over you. You think back to when you completed a similar project recently; it took you 12 weeks. You learned from your mistakes, you now have practice, and it will be quicker this time. You decide to commit to 10 weeks. No processes have changed since your last project roll out, yet somehow, you’re optimistic that things will be different this time.

It’s important to resist the urge played out above. The best, most reliable way to resource your upcoming project is to look at past projects. Let those projects be your guide and don’t be persuaded to move your timelines because “things will be different this time.”

The planning fallacy is out to derail your personal life, too. The Harvard Business Review wrote an article titled, “The Planning Fallacy and the Innovator’s Dilemma.” In the article, the author examines the planning fallacy as it applies to projects around the house. The typical homeowner budgets around $19,000 for a home improvement project, but the actual cost of those projects typically come in around $39,000.

How could this happen?

Most people like to think of the best-case scenario because it usually results in a lower cost outcome.

Here’s the thought process you may be all-too-familiar with:

From my research, I know that adding a deck to my house will likely cost $25,000…but I “know a guy,” and I could definitely shave off $7,500, no problem.

The allure of cost saving causes you to disregard readily available and relatable information.

To combat the planning fallacy, you need to be constantly vigilant in order to keep pesky optimism, ego, and the “but this time it will be different” mentality from creeping into your plan.

Three Tips to Help Avoid Becoming a Planning Fallacy Victim:

1. Use the data from past projects to predict your future project timelines.

Let history be your guide and realize that you typically have a solution to your scheduling problem right in front of you. If you haven’t conducted a project similar to the one you’re planning before, consult industry benchmarks. Find something that can set a precedent, even if the specific project isn’t directly comparable. (e.g. If you’re opening the first-ever Robot Cat Clothing Boutique, research the project timeline for the Hats for Fake House Plants store across the street.)

2. Be a pessimist.

Remember Murphy’s Law: what can go wrong, will go wrong. Your projects won’t run perfectly, even if you have the best intentions. Build your plan accordingly. It’s not to say that negativity will help you accomplish your goals, but approaching planning from a conservative, risk management standpoint will help curb enthusiasm.

3. Ask an unbiased party to gut-check your plan.

It can be difficult to distance yourself from a plan you’re working on. It’s easy to convince yourself that the ideal timeline you’ve created will work out perfectly. Pass your completed timeline off to a co-worker, and don’t campaign for your proposed timeline. Invite them to give open and honest feedback on whether or not they think the timeline is not just feasible, but realistic. Bonus points if you can get the office skeptic to take a pass at it.

Keep Your Plans in Check

A planning process that builds in accountability will help you realize quickly whether or not your plan timeline is realistic.

Remember, you’re not safe from the planning fallacy in your personal life, either. The next time you’re faced with a big life decision, don’t fall into the trap set by “it will be different this time.” Take precautions, do your research, and trust the data of those who have gone before you.

Leave the Firefighting to the Firefighters

By Joseph Krause

Making Time for Innovation: Leave the Firefighting to the Firefighters

I had the pleasure of attending the Business Transformation and Operational Excellence conference in chilly Orlando recently. After all the sessions I attended, one particular slide remained lodged in my brain, and has changed the way I think about planning.

This slide outlined how much time western organizations spend on “firefighting” compared to their Japanese counterparts. 3 times as much.

Firefighting, for the uninitiated, involves running around in a panic, solving problems that pop up unexpectedly that require immediate attention, and usually could have been prevented with due diligence. Firefighting can take the form of responding to a frantic email at 2 am because a supplier never showed, or calling a last-minute meeting to address the power outage in the warehouse.

Firefighting is time consuming and extremely exhausting because it doesn’t allow you to get into a consistent rhythm.

That said, the presentation claimed that western organizations spend 40% of their time on operations and 60% of their time on firefighting!

Making Time for Innovation and Strategic Planning

For the strategic planners out there – you’ve noticed that 60% firefighting + 40% operations = 0% left for strategy.

This should be cause for alarm. A fire alarm.

But everyone is left in this Groundhog Day situation, right? Don’t all business leaders wish they had time for innovative initatives, but never get to them?

As it turns out, this presentation also highlighted how Japanese companies spend their time. 20% of time is spent on daily operations, 20% on firefighting, and 60% on continuous improvement / innovation / strategic planning.

Think about that for a moment.

Japanese companies, on average, reduced the time spent firefighting by 40%, enabling space to spend 60% of their time on the most important thing – innovation.

What percentage of your time do you think you spend on firefighting vs. strategic planning / innovation?

Combatting Operational Pressure

I published a blog post recently on operational planning and what you’ll find is that most firefighting is related to operational pressures.

The issue with a laser focus on operations is that you spend all of your time worrying about the problems that impact how your organization functions today, instead of looking ahead to areas of which you’re not currently taking advantage.

While you’re optimizing what you already have, one of your competitors will do their best to out-innovate you.

One analogy used at the conference mentioned that you can only get so much added efficiency out of a horse, but it will never turn into a car. If you spend all of your time trying to make your horse run faster, someone will eventually beat you with their vehicle.

Who Started the Fire?

In order to reduce the amount of time you spend firefighting, you need to better understand the root cause of your problems.

When a house burns down, the fire department does an extensive investigation to better understand why the fire started in the first place. Was it arson? Was it the fuse box? Was it you leaving that frozen pizza in the oven overnight? (Be safe out there, folks!)

You need to take this same approach in your business. Learn from your mistakes to ensure you improve future results. If you’re only taking the time to run from fire to fire, you’re not spending the time you need to actually improve, and evolve past your competition.

What do you plan on doing to reduce the amount of time you spend firefighting? What would you be able to do with an extra 60% capacity in your workload?

One area that might be smoking up into a fire is your reporting. Do you have a way to see trends before they burst into flames? If you’re interested in seeing how AchieveIt can help, watch a product demo video.

Your Project’s Silent Killer: White Space Risk

By Joseph Krause

What is White Space Risk and How Can You Avoid It?

You’re opening a casino. The project you’re managing culminates in the grand opening of your casino, Quitters Never Win, in just 4 weeks. Your project plan houses all the necessary processes and checklist items to ensure you start and end on time…or so you thought.

In making sure you had all the best slot machines in place – from Wheel of Fortune to Kitty Glitter – you discover that no one ever applied for the liquor license. Upon further research, you discover the process to apply for and receive a license takes six weeks, and you need to shift your entire opening timeline to half a month later (or suffer from a room full of reserved gamblers devoid of liquid luck).

How did this step not end up in your comprehensive project plan?

For you project managers, this scenario is something that sends a chill down your spine. This is what you know as white space risk.

For those of you not as well-acquainted with the frightening phenomenon, white space risk is the scourge of project planning. It will sabotage your best laid plans if you don’t take proper precautions.

But enough drama. Let’s get down to it.

What is White Space Risk?

The Harvard Business Review wrote an article back in 2003 that defines “white space risk” as the chance that some required project activities won’t be identified in advance of the project start, leaving gaps in the project plan.

The article also outlines the differences between “execution risk” – the probable risk that defined activities won’t be completed – and “integration risk” – the likelihood that all the different initiatives won’t form a cohesive outcome.

While you can factor in the statistics for execution and integration risks, the unknown variable is white space risk. How many undefined tasks should you prepare for, and how do you prepare for something you aren’t prepared for?

Like in the casino scenario, the terrifying thing about white space risk is that you think you have everything accounted for ahead of time, but you know there are things that you don’t yet know. Project planning professionals are very familiar with this risk, and have experienced it firsthand. For those of you strategic planners out there, you might think that since you’re not in project management you don’t have to worry about white space risk. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to be the messenger here, and tell you why that’s not the case.

Managing White Space Risk in Strategic Planning

Strategic plan overseers might fall into a false sense of security because strategic plans tend to have longer time horizons and include less detail than project plans. There should be less room for error when you’re talking at a higher level about overarching goals, right?

The brutal reality is that any time you’re dealing with a work breakdown structure, there’s a good chance you can miss a critical step. That missing step is what will kill the momentum of your entire plan.

It’s my belief that that the traditional methods used for creating strategic plans increase white space risk because they’re not graphical enough. If you’re trying to tell what’s going on by looking at a spreadsheet, you’re going to miss gaps.

Cost of Using Excel for Strategic Plan Management

Read this guide to learn the not-so-obvious dangers of using Excel for strategic plan management, and how to find something better.

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For example, if you think about why we upgraded from DOS based terminals to graphical user interface (GUI) on our personal computers in the 90s – it’s because the human brain responds better to iconography and images. Most of us are visual learners. If you apply the idea of using a GUI to plan execution, why would you use text-based methods to build your work breakdown structure? I promise there’s a better way.

Solutions for Decreasing White Space Risk

To reduce the opportunity for white space risk to rear its ugly head, we have developed the tree view feature (watch the video) within the AchieveIt platform. The tree view allows you to build your plan as if you used sticky notes on a whiteboard. This method ensures you’re able to see all the connection points within your plan, and allows you greater opportunity to identify missing key steps more often.

If you’re not already using AchieveIt and our tree view, for the time being, here are three steps to take when building and auditing your plans to help you decrease white space risk:

Step 1: Find all of your project plans or strategic plans from the past few years. You’re probably going to have to dig through multiple hard drives and play the version identification game to get the information you need.

Step 2: Conduct a post-mortem on each plan to get a sense of how successful your execution efforts were. Did you miss any critical steps? If so, how many steps were missed? Why do you think they were missed?

Step 3: Identify which tools you used to build out the plans and projects that were missing critical steps. Did you place your plan in a Word Document on your shared drive? Were you using Smartsheet to track your plan in a live spreadsheet?

It’s my suspicion that your answer to number three will be the typical answers I hear which include: Excel, PowerPoint, or MS Project.

Visibility is all-important in identifying gaps early and addressing them proactively. If you can’t see your plan at a 30,000-foot view, you’re going to miss applying for that liquor license, booking that conference hall, or installing that software connector that the entire success of your project wobbles upon, unseen until a critical moment.

By addressing this root cause of white space risk, your organization will be more open to exploring a better way to track and monitor your plan.

Do Your Status Updates Contain These 3 Key Elements?

By Joseph Krause

Do Your Status Updates Contain These 3 Key Elements?

When you stop and think about it, a surprising portion of your work day is probably spent providing status updates to your colleagues about where you sit with items you’re working on. It’s likely that the amount of time it takes to let your team know how things are going, when you expect to complete the work, what deliverables you’re waiting on, etc., could have been reallocated from putting together the email to actually working on the project itself.

Are these lengthy, meandering updates that take time to provide, read and digest the best approach to take when providing a status update or is there a better way?


In this webinar, Jim Villwock lays out a roadmap for how to engage your employees to ensure the execution of your strategic plan.

Watch Now

An effective status update should contain three key elements:

  1. At-a-Glance Initiative Health: A status light indicating red (At Risk), yellow (Off Track) or green (On Track) performance.
  2. Quick Project Context: Two to three sentences explaining why the plan item is either red, yellow or green.
  3. Concise Next Steps: Two to three sentences about what you’re going to do next.

1. At-a-Glance Initiative Health

A status light indicating red (At Risk), yellow (Off Track) or green (On Track) performance.

One of my favorite blog posts addresses this topic but the information bears repeating. If you want to make your status reports easier to understand, you need to rely on the power of color-coding.

Imagine. You walk into a meeting where your agenda is to begin with At Risk items and how to get them On Track. Then you address Off Track items, then you can celebrate On Track items with your remaining time. If your status report is color-coded, you can knock out a meeting with more acuity than your way of working now.

2. Quick Project Context

Two to three sentences explaining why the plan item is either red, yellow or green.

Your colleagues want to understand the context behind your status update. This critical context is why you’re having the status update meeting in the first place, so why not provide it prior to your regularly scheduled meetings? This way, you can walk into your meeting empowered with the questions you’d like to ask instead of working through everything on the fly.

The other potential benefit is that you’re allowing your team to have an opportunity to understand why the green items are successful. It’s common for the status update for an On Track item to be simply, “Things are going well!” By getting context ahead of a meeting, your team can be more prepared with questions to help get to the core of, “Why are you seeing success?,” “What can we learn from your success?” and, “How can we apply your learnings to other parts of the business?”

3. Concise Next Steps

Two to three sentences about what you’re going to do next.

Now that you’ve provided your color-coded status and given your briefing on the “why” around your update, it’s critical to outline what you’re going to do next.

For example, if your item is At Risk and you don’t have predefined, clear next steps, you will likely end up participating in a “fire drill.” Your team will spend time discussing what can be done to fix the metric immediately, without all the context they need to make an informed decision.

Fire drills are usually ineffective. There are plenty of scenarios where you’re doing everything you can to make a positive impact, and yet, the item you’re working on is still trending poorly. What you can do is ensure your team is comfortable with your handling the situation.

The Power of Simplified Project Status Updates

It may sound elementary; surely your initiatives are more complex than categorizing them in one of three primary colors?!

Trust me. It may sound oversimplified, but the concise categorization and checklist of important information will save you time and energy, and put your team on a path towards focusing on your most critical initiatives.

Treat yourself to fewer fire drill reactions, and maybe your hour-long meetings will actually start lasting an hour.



Is Your Strategic Plan an Operational Plan in Disguise?

By Joseph Krause

Is Your Strategic Plan an Operational Plan in Disguise

When I think of disguises the first thing that comes to mind is the ending of every episode of Scooby Doo when they finally catch the “ghost” only to find out it was the owner of the abandoned amusement park all along. For the first 28 minutes, you’re led to believe that ghosts are real, because you saw something that looked and acted like a ghost… right up until the big reveal during the last two minutes.

The same can be said for many of the strategic plans I encounter on a regular basis.

When a client signs up with AchieveIt, one of the first things we do is begin to discuss their strategic plan. We talk about the format, the scope, the history and a variety of important facts about the plan itself. When I hear our clients talk about their strategic plan I say to myself, “Yep, that sounds like a pretty standard plan.” However, once I get my hands on the documentation, I sometimes have my own personal Scooby Doo moment and realize that the strategic plan was an operating plan in disguise.

What’s the Difference Between Strategic and Operational Plans?

Let’s take a step back to define the terms we’re using to ensure we’re on the same page. A strategic plan is developed to help the organization achieve its long-term vision. Conversely, operating plans involve the process of deciding what needs to be done to achieve the tactical objectives of the business.

Operational planning is done to support strategic planning efforts. They’re the action plans, so in a perfect world the strategic plan comes first, quickly followed by a robust and measurable operating plan. Operating plans should help you run the day-to-day activities in the company as efficiently as possible.

To be clear: this post is not about choosing between an operating plan or a strategic plan because you need both to be successful. My colleague Jonathan Morgan touched on this topic in one of his recent blog posts. What you don’t want is one huge document that blurs the lines between the two very different plans, which results in mediocre performance for both.

How to Tell if Your Operational Plan is Playing Masquerade

You’re probably thinking about your plan right now and wondering if it’s blurring the lines between being strategic or operational. Here are a couple ways to spot the items that need to be moved out of your strategic plan and into a more focused operational plan.

  1. Does your strategic plan have hundreds of items in it?
    • Strategic plans are successful due in large part to focused effort. It’s nearly impossible to have your organization focus on hundreds of strategic items. If you have too many items to focus effectively, move some of your items into an ideas parking lot or, if the items are tactical and specific, move them into your operational plan.
  2. Do the items in your plan have a definitive end date or are they ongoing?
    • A strategic plan is all about creating new capabilities to help your organization leverage future opportunities. As you begin to decide how to create new capabilities you’ll usually develop a variety of projects. Projects by their very definition are temporary with a defined beginning and end. Once that project is done and you’ve created a new capability, hold a graduation ceremony for that item because it needs to move into the operating plan.
  3. Are the items in your strategic plan reoccurring?
    • Do the items in your strategic plan need to be completed monthly? If so, get them into your operating plan. Items like this are usually the result of solid strategic plan execution but once again, they’ve graduated into a different plan.

Accomplish Your Strategic and Operational Goals

Friends don’t let their friend’s strategic plan become an operating plan in disguise. Your homework assignment is to go and review your strategic planning documents. If you encounter any of the symptoms I’ve outlined above, please let us know and we’d be happy to help. To learn more about how AchieveIt can help you accomplish both your strategic and operational goals, click here.



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