On planning

Whenever I start a new job, I learn how to plan all over again. I’m not talking about big, strategic planning at the programmatic or organizational level, but rather the daily/weekly/maybe-monthly planning we each do individually to ensure that our own work is on track.

I re-learn planning with every new position because the kind of planning a job requires depends on the job itself: the type of work, the speed of deadlines, the amount of uncertainty and ambiguity in the context, the level of collaboration with internal or external stakeholders, the type of accountability, etc. All of these factors encourage different planning practices.

The changes in my planning practices have led me to distill a few general principles that have been useful in all my planning.

Principle 1: Plan.

That is to say: actually do it. Ideally, I take an hour or two each week to create a medium-term plan. I usually do this outside the office and outside normal working hours, because that’s the best way to get the uninterrupted time needed to really focus on planning. I use that session to review my current plan and update it to cover the upcoming two weeks (maybe more or less, depending on the type of job). That plan forms the basis for my daily plans. I spend 15-30 minutes each morning or night combing over the weekly plan and figuring out what needs to be done in the upcoming day.

That’s the ideal situation. I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes things move too quickly, or there’s too much uncertainty, or you don’t have control over the key decisions. Sometimes you just feel lazy on Sunday morning so you write a blog post about planning rather than actually planning (ahem).

The one excuse that I never allow myself is this: “I don’t have time to plan.” If you think you don’t have time to plan, that’s precisely when you need to sit down and plan.

Principle 2: Have a planning process and template, but be willing to change them.

My planning and the resulting plans have taken a variety of formats: spiral-bound notebooks, pocket-sized journals, Word documents, or Excel spreadsheet. Mostly Excel spreadsheets. Regardless of how I’m recording it, I always have a process and a template.

As mentioned above, the core of the process requires getting away from distractions for at least an hour. If it’s possible, I turn off my phone/email. If I have to be in the office, I’ll at least put in my headphones as a “Do Not Disturb” sign. I make sure that I have on hand whatever I might need: my recent medium-term plan, my calendar, up-to-date metrics, long-term strategic plans, recent requests made of me, etc. From there, the process varies with different jobs. If it’s a new job and you don’t have a process yet, start by listing everything you need to get done. Once it’s all written in front of you, start organizing it into categories, combining or sorting in a way that makes the tasks more manageable.

This is where you start to create a template. The template provides the cheat-sheet that you’ll look at for your daily plans, for making adjustments during the week, and for holding yourself accountable when you make the next week’s plan.

Create the template by thinking in terms of priorities. If your job has been well-defined, you may already know what these priorities are: support field offices, build relationships with donors, liaise with partner organizations, and so on. Try making a table with a column for “priorities”, each of which has several “tasks” or “outputs” in the next column over. The exact terminology doesn’t matter, as long as it makes sense to you in your job. Add other fields as needed.

As you get more accustomed to planning in your job, amend both the process and template to make your planning more efficient and thorough.

Principle 3: The planning is more important than the plan.

My planning aims for more than just a timetable for particular actions or a “to-do” list. Of course, these result from my planning. But the more critical result is the clear understanding of priorities and trade-offs that I gain from the planning process.

The actual plan depends on a variety of assumptions that might not come true. You might try creating several plans for various contingencies, but there will still be others you failed to consider. When the unexpected occurs, you need to make quick adjustments to the plan. Those quick adjustments will be much easier if your planning process focused on making your priorities explicit and understanding your operating context, including the demands and the choices you face.

If you plan with a focus on priorities and choices — rather than tasks — you’re better equipped to make an active decision when something new comes up. You choose whether to adjust your plan, with full knowledge of what you’re sacrificing or gaining. Without making those trade-offs explicit in advance, it’s too easy for the events of the day (or someone else’s plan) to take control of our agenda.

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. — Dwight D. Eisenhower

Principle 4: Work backwards from the goal and forwards from the present. Iterate as needed.

We plan because time is finite. Any planning template should have an estimate of how long each task will take and when it’s due. From there, it’s basic math to figure out if everything fits the time allotted. But what if you forget to include a critical step?

A good way to make sure you have all the pieces lined up is to work backwards from the goal. Lay out the required preparation and sequence. You might work backwards to the present and realize that it’s too late to put all the pieces in place. Then work forward and identify the trouble spots. If you can’t make it fit, revisit your priorities or look for some outside assistance.

Principle 5: Find your planning horizon.

I like to think of myself as an efficient planner: I plan the things that have to be planned right now, and I put off the planning that can be better done later. The line between the two is your planning horizon. It’s different for every job.

Wherever your planning horizon is, don’t agonize over things you can’t plan yet. Uncertainties and unknowns abound. Find a way to bracket those questions that you’ll address later. Then be explicit about what needs to occur before you can address them: What new information do you need to make the plan, and how will you secure it? Find a way to strike that balance.

Principle 6: Include everything.

Even the boring stuff. If you have repetitive tasks that you have to do every day, include them or risk seeing them squeezed out. It’s as simple as writing them down once and copying them into the new plan each week.

Also, there’s no rule that says our planning has to be restricted to work tasks. I used to include blogging, studying Swahili, and reading in my planning. I recently dropped them off because the plans looked too cluttered, and I knew that I would make time for these personal activities anyway. Except that I stopped making the time when I stopped including them. I’m starting to claw back though. If you have a job that tends to spill beyond normal working hours, include your other activities in your plan.

______________________

That’s it for my planning principles. Let’s hear from the readers on this. What principles work for you?

5 thoughts on “On planning

  1. I admire your aplomb when it comes to planning, Dave. I have to wonder though, with all this time and effort looking forward, when do you find time to look backwards and reflect not only on what’s been accomplished, but what there is to capture and share from what’s been learned?

    • Good question. I guess I didn’t think to say it, but planning always starts with the previous plan and a self-check on whether I actually completed it — and if not, then why. As far as capturing/sharing, that’s something you need to bake into the plan as well. Sometimes that’s an official part of the job (through updates to my boss or “lessons learned” documents) but other times it’s unofficial and outside work (which is precisely why I blog).

  2. I think one way to encourage planning is to encourage poor planners to use a tool that makes it easier for them to structure their plans and share it with the team. I’ve written about my favorite tool (trello) with a tutorial on how it maps to project management: http://chewychunks.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/using-trello-project-management/
    At least one friend insists that work-flowy is the best tool for her. I am firmly against using stuff from the MS Office suite for planning, since those files get lost, overlooked, and remain isolated – but using them is better than nothing.

  3. Thanks a lot.. I am still reluctant to do follow this schedule of planning. Seems more like time table for each thing. But, definitely I will try to do so. Lets see…

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