2nd November 2020

The problem with planning – and how to fix it

There are many types of planning – there’s the annual meeting, the weekly catch-up, the fortnightly Agile ‘sprint’, even the morning stand-up. They all target different timeframes, but they work towards the same broad goal, making sure everyone’s on the same page.

We exit the annual meeting pumped about the next 12 months, the sprint planning session brings the next two weeks into sharp focus, and after the stand-up everybody knows what we’re working on today. But what about the middle ground, the more medium-term goals? Here’s where it gets murky.

Like it or not, humans tend to drift. It’s true with diets, exercise or learning a language and it’s true in business too. What seemed certain at a meeting may be less well-defined a few weeks later. It’s not just about us either – what our audiences need and expect from us may well change over the course of a few weeks, so we need to be able to respond to that too.

Here’s where 90-day planning comes in. It’s a strategy of regular goal setting and course-correction that keeps all parts of your organisation pulling in the right direction.

The problem with planning

As it stands, planning poses its own problems. In a sense that’s because the way to chaos is paved with good intentions that aren’t always possible to follow up, at least not in the way we expected. Of course we all want more leads, we’re all looking for more growth and new opportunities, but setting out our mission and realising it aren’t the same thing.

In one way, planning too far in advance with too few sessions can be the culprit, not giving ourselves enough contingency for change. But what’s more likely is that if we don’t have a reliable mechanism to review and correct our course, our circumstances change, our priorities shift and to be completely honest, things get forgotten about. By conditioning your organisation to think in 90-day planning cycles (each referencing the previous one) and crucially, by introducing accountability, you’re less likely to drift so drastically.

So why 90 days?

Well, there are two key sets of reasons. First, the external factors – as business owners we’ve long faced the dichotomy of needing to plan for the future while not being able to predict what’s coming next. This is what makes 90 days something of a magic number. The 90-day period is long enough to set out a rolling vision of the future and check in on how those plans are progressing, but it’s also short enough to not get too far ahead of ourselves, or assume that the landscape will look the same 12 months from now.

The world is uncertain. To point to 2020 as an illustration of that would seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but even in a ‘normal’ year without the high drama of the last 12 months, things don’t stand still. The parameters we work within and the assumptions that hold true in March may be very different by June and annual planning alone won’t cut it. If priorities and circumstances change, you need to be able to respond.

Then there are the internal factors, which essentially means our own flawed behaviour. Entrepreneurial Operating System ® (EOS) founder and author of ‘Traction’ Gino Wickman notes a baleful statistic that most people drop their new year’s resolution by the second week of February. Why? Because the “inability to sustain effort and commitment toward one or more big goals is simply human nature.”

He points out that a great annual planning session might leave its attendees completely united in purpose and vision, but 90 days later things will have changed – “you will get far off track, start to lose great people, lose sight of your vision, and end up right back where you started – in chaos.” There’s also what’s known as ‘shiny object syndrome’, which is dangerous and instrumental in distraction, sending us off down different paths when things seem attractive but aren’t an agreed priority.

Once again, 90 days is a great figure to work with, long enough to allow those movements to become clear and correct them, but short enough to minimise damage  caused by moving in the wrong direction for too long.

90-day planning as part of your toolkit

It’s important to remember that the 90-day marketing planning approach is a complementary one. We’d never suggest replacing your annual meeting, because it’s important and it serves a different purpose. Annual planning is there to make sure your team is clear, committed and aligned to your long-term vision.

Your 90-day planning sessions are there to make sure you keep the essence of that plan in place, correct any drift and make any necessary adjustments in light of new information. It’s also there to set out what your audience will expect from you over those 90 days and to enable you to adjust your approach as those expectations change.

Wickman says human nature means that over time, “the rope begins to fray.” That’s why, every 90 days, it’s important to come together to get back on track. It’s a way to regularly refresh and refocus, before embarking on the next 90-day period.

How we can help

We use 90-day planning ourselves, here at Uniquity. We know that it’s good for us and good for our clients too, and we can help you to introduce it to your business, or fine-tune your existing approach. One of the key tenets is setting priorities, something that the EOS framework calls ‘Rocks’. They represent the key things you need to accomplish over the next 90 days.

Not everything is a rock – you should be looking for between three and seven rocks per 90-day period. That’s because of the simple fact that everything can’t be a top priority. Warren Buffett was clear on this – if you have 25 priorities and you circle the top five, then the way forward should be to concentrate on those five and fit the other 20 in around them, right? No. Buffett advised dealing with the top five, while avoiding the others at all costs until those really key ones are achieved. That’s both an illustration of shiny object syndrome and a lesson on how to combat it – what it takes is structured and single-minded prioritising.

By planning in 90-day cycles, you’re forced to be selective and then focus on those really key selections. Rocks might be individual, departmental or organisational but crucially they’re the really key priorities for you, your business and your audience that fit into a 90-day period.

Get in touch

If you’d like to explore the benefits of 90-day marketing planning, we’d love to help. We’ll work with you to brainstorm and prioritise those key things that really matter for the weeks ahead, and we’ll help you to make sure that the activity in your 90-day plan is aligned with your objectives.

As a closing thought, let’s invoke another management big gun, Peter F. Drucker, management consultant, educator, and author to whom the quote “What gets measured gets managed” is frequently attributed. In other words you can’t hope to keep track of progress if you’re not able to measure it. We use what we call a Marketing Scorecard, to identify the metrics that we’ll measure, based on your client value journey.

Once you’re completely clear on your rocks, priorities, big-ticket goals, call them what you will, we’ll help you to document and implement a 90-day plan that gets them done, with regular catch-ups to monitor and fine-tune your plans.