Planning for Complexity

Planning is a challenge even in the best of times. But it is a necessary challenge.  A plan helps you align imagination with resources, expectations with realities, and individual concerns with collective good. The challenge comes when you don’t know what is going to happen, when your actions depend on others’, and when people have different ideas about what the future should look like.  Two planning disciplines are supposed to tell you how to create such a work of hope and pragmatism: Strategic planning and project planning.  

Strategic plans have wide scope and influence in many organizations.  They consider systemic strengths, Business Professionals Planning a Marketing Strategyweaknesses, opportunities, and threats to focus resources and attention on critical initiatives. They usually begin with some statement of intent like a goal, mission, or vision, which is dissected into objectives intended to lead toward the imagined future. Objectives are further dissected into tasks, and resources and accountabilities are assigned to tasks.  Such strategic plans are usually logical and sometimes compelling. They catalyze conversations about what is important and what is possible.  They align the future of the individual and team with the future of the corporation.  The problem with strategic planning is that it requires a big investment and may give a small return. In times of complex change, your assumptions and aspirations may shift quickly, so a strategic plan that was perfect at the beginning of the year may be irrelevant by the end of the first quarter.  What is a better way to prepare you and your colleagues to create your most productive future?

Project plans are usually more bounded in time and in scope.  Good ones have clear goals, tasks, milestones, schedules, and budgets. They structure the activities of your team to ensure that outcomes and deliverables arrive as designed and on time. Project management discipline, like strategic planning, has the potential to bring diverse people and their perspectives together into shared understanding and action. The challenge is that a project plan assumes you can predict and control the future.  In complex change prediction may not be possible, and control may be illusory.  What is a better way to prepare your team to focus on shared work?

I have spent the last week helping a client organization plan to transform their human resource (HR) management functions. They know they want more efficient and effective HR transactions. They know their business success will depend on more creative and systemic approaches to managing human resources.  They also know that they and their clients are under tremendous political and economic stress; that their workforce needs, collective agreements, market, clients, and competition are evolving quickly; and that day-to-day work already demands more-than-full-time commitment from employees at all levels.  They know they don’t have enough time for traditional strategic planning, nor enough certainty for traditional project planning, but they still cannot walk into the future without a plan.  Here are some of our suggestions to help them initiate a process of active planning and plan-full action.

Depend on Adaptive Action to integrate planning with action.  When you ask the Adaptive Action questions (What?  So what? Now what?), it brings planning as close as possible to the point of action.  Data collection and analysis can be focused on what is most relevant, stakeholders can be most engaged, and assumptions can be most reliable. And, because every Adaptive Action cycle leads to the next, the process can be self-correcting.  If the last plan was flawed, then the next cycle of questioning will reveal the problem and give you an opportunity to change course.

Focus on long, medium, and near horizons at the same time.  A plan focused on a long-term horizon gets people onboard because it defines a vision and aligns attention and action.  This horizon requires Adaptive Action to draw lessons from traditional strategic planning, including environmental scans and creative dialogue. The cycle time has to be long because there are many unknowns and new information emerges over time.  The Adaptive Action questions have to be broad and somewhat vague because precise focus emerges over time, too. Appropriate questions for a long-term Adaptive Action horizon could include:

  • What are our patterns of success and failure today?
  • So what can we learn from our shared present to inform our possible future?
  • Now what actions in the near, medium, and long terms leverage those learnings into greater success?

The mid-term horizon organizes action in the foreseeable future. These Adaptive Action cycles draw on project management skills and disciplines to define initial conditions, establish task sequences, resources, interdependencies, and deliverables.  The cycle time will depend on the scope, urgency, and stability of the task at hand.  One Adaptive Action cycle might take months if the scope is large, the need is not urgent, and change is expected to be slow and/or predictable. On the other hand, a small, urgent scope in unpredictable environment could require daily Adaptive Action cycles to respond to the mid-term planning horizon.  Adaptive Action questions for the mid-term planning might include:

  • What has happened recently?
  • So what has been surprising or disruptive to our plan?
  • Now what should I do to adjust and accommodate to this new information?

Adaptive Action in a near-term horizon provides the most flexibility because short cycle times mean fast feedback, fast learning, and quick response.  One practical example of this kind of plan is the daily to-do list.  Even in chaotic times, there is a good chance you can see the immediate future well enough to plan a day’s activities—and be prepared to shift with surprises.  Questions for near-horizon planning might include:

  • What Is the primary tension in the situation right now?
  • So what do I see as known, unknown, unknowable about that tension?
  • Now what can I do in the immediate future to move toward the mid- and long-horizon goals?

Plan to re-plan. Besides using Adaptive Action questions to plan business tactics and strategies, you also need to take Adaptive Action on the plan itself. 

  • What new information is emerging?
  • So what differences make a difference to our current plan for each horizon?
  • Now what should we do to update our plans and keep on track toward our most productive future?

Our client is at the beginning of their process and just learning the concepts and skills that they will need to execute their Adaptive Action plans.  They have many questions, but one thing they know for sure—these planning principles are fit for function in their highly complex and unpredictable world of work.   What about you?

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