By Bill Fotsch
I worked at Bain & Company for six years after graduating from business school. Back then the firm’s mantra was “data driven analysis.” The reason a bunch of 20-somethings like me could give advice to Fortune 100 executives, one partner explained, was that we had gathered the data. We had done our homework.
It’s no surprise that planning requires homework. Build a home without doing a soil test and you may find that the foundation is unstable. Go up against a good opponent in almost any sport and the game will go better if you have taken the time to understand your competitor. Sun Tsu, author of The Art of War, points out that a successful military strategy stems from a solid understanding of the terrain, the enemy and your own relative strengths and weaknesses.
So the homework is necessary. But it’s not sufficient. Here’s what else I’ve learned since my days at Bain:
If you want a plan to be as strong as possible—and if you want it to be successfully implemented—you need to involve a broad range of employees in the process. Jack Stack of SRC calls it “high involvement planning,” and it works well at his company.
Customers need to have input, too. I have found the work of Fred Reichheld on customer and employee loyalty very helpful in this context. Reichheld’s “Ultimate Question” has become the basis for a customer interview script that is now part of the planning process I recommend. It is a powerful and efficient way to get customer input into planning, and it helps make plans more successful.
How different this is from the typical planning process! At many companies, senior management annually heads off to some offsite retreat, typically a pretty nice place. With the guide of a “planning facilitator,” the top people think great thoughts, often based on little homework and no employee or customer involvement. This Wizard of Oz approach provides lots of Dilbert comedy but rarely any successful plans.
Even more common is the lack of any ongoing planning process. Company leaders often explain that they are way too busy dealing with day-to-day problems to devote any time to planning. Sure, everyone has heard the comment, “If you are too busy to plan, you are planning to fail.” But they don’t act on it.
The problem with planning is that it does not provide an immediate payoff. It requires time and effort that could be spent on pressing day-to day-challenges. The phone is ringing and we have to answer it. A new order needs to get filled today. An employee mistake has to be remedied. Stephen Covey refers to this as the “tyranny of the urgent” blocking out time to deal with the important. I think he is right.
Like a sports team that needs to set aside time for practice to win the big game, companies need to do their homework to develop successful plans. And they need systematic input from employees, managers, and customers as well as from the financials. A coach may be able to facilitate the process. But there will be work you and your team need to do.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, if you do your homework and involve your people—and particularly if you do all that better than your competitors—your likelihood of success will soar.