Monday, June 13, 2016

How To Make Long Range Plans The Easy Way

Last week, marketing guru Seth Godin posted on his blog, "A ten-year plan is absurd," arguing that while planning that far out is impossible, companies and individuals need ten-year commitments to make an impact on the world.

While he has a point about plans spanning ten or more years, in order to understand how to implement and operate under your commitment, you still must plan for the future. Just keep it to a little more of a foreseeable future than a decade out.

I have worked on several "long range plans" over the years, and have found that usually three to five years forms the outer boundary on a fortune teller, and that predictions beyond eighteen months tend to be less and less accurate. Regardless, creating a plan helps set a direction and guidelines for motion that can help carry a company forward and avoid sitting paralyzed with inaction. So how do you do it?

Set Your Goals

If you don't have an overall strategy or goals, you might find it difficult to create any sort of a plan. That's like trying to create vacation plans without deciding whether you want to go to New York, Florida, or California. Or maybe a cruise.

Having clear goals and strategic direction shape the course of the rest of the plan. Your plan may have some things in it that you are just required to do, but overall, most of your initiatives should move you closer to one or more of your goals.

Granted, sometimes, you might find yourself without a real strategy (sometimes companies run for years without one). When faced with that situation, some of the teams I have been on just take a guess. Write it down. You can always refine it and make it better, but you need to have an overall direction to really get started.

Choose Your Inputs

The strategy defines the "what" of the plan that you want to accomplish, but you need to select appropriate inputs into the plan to help you determine the "how."

Some example inputs might be competitive or industry research, technologies that might provide you an opportunity, assessments of your current strengths and weaknesses, or financial inputs. All of these inputs (and more) should provide you with an idea of the landscape. Take a broad view of where your business fits with the world and what data could help you.

Do some research.

Brainstorm The Impossible

The easy path would have you planning out what you know, using in-flight projects and current scope work to craft your plan. Don't stop with the easy.

Schedule a specific brainstorming session. We've done this over lunch or informally, but if you really want some good ideas, set aside a specific chunk of time to do this.

Leverage all of your inputs to create a list of initiatives, opportunities, or projects that you could undertake to drive your strategy. Try to remove the filter, though. Don't limit yourself by what you could easily make happen.

Think big. Think crazy. Think impossible.

How could you turn the industry on its head? How could you completely overtake your largest competitor? How could you multiply your profits or productivity by ten?

Don't be afraid to put some things down that seem impossible. Remember, this is a long range plan. So, what you feel may be impossible might be easier once you achieve some of your intermediate targets. They also help drive your capability improvement. Sure, you could never accomplish that project tomorrow, but if you made these other five smaller tweaks to your capabilities, then you could do the first half of it, right?

Think big before you let the tactical get in the way.

Create A Timeline

Goals without timelines are just dreams. Create a Gantt chart or some other visual plot that shows where you think you can do your projects in the next couple of years. Maybe some of the impossible ones are a little further out. Maybe not.

Can you do all of those projects where you have them slated? If not, then you still have some work to do.

Prioritize. Put the most important projects sooner if you can get them completed. Put ones less likely to move the needle a little later. As you complete the impactful ones, you can always reassess whether or not you even need to complete the others.

Look for opportunities to scale. If you need help to complete some of the projects, build into the timeline the need to hire additional staff. Look at things you can automate to improve your throughput. Make sure you don't schedule too many projects immediately in the first six months of your plan, unless you can realistically complete them.

Add buffer. Things will come up at a tactical level that will challenge your ability to keep working the plan. Make sure that buffer time exists in the plan to deal with tactical distractions.


Long-range planning is difficult. Trying to plan beyond a certain horizon is simply impossible.

However, planning is essential to meet goals and implement change. Fortunately, the process of creating long range plans can be broken down to simplify it and help you generate something actionable. Determine your strategy and goals, do some research, brainstorm like crazy, and then start plotting out a timeline.

Over time, the process of planning will become more repetitive and you will get better at it each iteration. Pick a standard interval (yearly, perhaps) to reformulate your plan. Don't just update it, though. Walk back through the steps to create a new plan based on your new reality. If you do choose to update more frequently, make it a living document, able to be altered in any way.

Either way, you will find that your plan morphs, but so long as you clearly define your strategy, you will move in the right direction.