It’s the new year and many of us will be creating new plans or reviewing our current ones. The year ahead still looks very uncertain so how do we plan in these unstable conditions.

The key is flexibility: but then you may well ask, “How do we plan for flexibility?” The answer is to concentrate on strategic issues, but leave your tactics flexible. Lets look at an analogy:

Suppose you are going for a walk, from A to B: you know where you are starting from (A) and you know where your objective is (B). But you don’t walk in a straight line (the red line). You are likely to come across obstacles. First there is a hill, then a lake. So, you have to change course, and your likely path may be more like the green line. By point (1) you are way off course to the South, and by point (2) you are way off to the North. But, so long as you are clear where your big objective (B)  is you keep amending your course and get there.

Knowing your objective is your strategic plan; changes in the route to negotiate obstacles are tactical decisions. When you plan in uncertain conditions it is important to be clear about your big-picture objectives, but allow your tactical milestones to be flexible and move to accommodate change.

The review process is critically important in uncertain times – but it is critical to take an overall view. Most of the items in our plan will be interrelated: something that impacts one area negatively may open up opportunities in another. It is all too easy to become obsessed with one item and be unable to see the big picture. Your review meetings should be about overall assessment. Having separate financial, sales, production or management reviews may be necessary for larger organizations, but plenary reviews to see how everything is interacting is vital. The same is true of gantt charts and PERTs – used properly they are great aids, but too often they become just parts of a corporate dogma – the province of the priests that brought them down from the mountains and obstacles to flexibility

The tools you use for your planning should be carefully considered to allow for this flexibility. Spreadsheets can be great – if used properly. By that I mean using them them to show how things are interrelated so that you can change one bit of data and see how it impacts upon others – they can allow you to play complicated ‘what-if’ games with ease. When used wrongly they are a dangerous hindrance. Often I have seen spreadsheets that are beautiful, the result of  weeks or months of burnt midnight oil, but they have not used a spreadsheet’s strength and interconnected the data. As a result, any changes mean somebody going away and recalculating whole areas of the sheet – with a result that these actions are not taken, and the spreadsheet becomes a barrier to change rather than an aid.

For strategic planning, my preference is to use anything that allows flexibility and an easy view of the big picture – whiteboards, corkboards, post-it notes, index or planning cards. These allow constant review and easy response to change while keeping sight of those big objectives.