This is the first new year of my life without my father, who passed away suddenly in the fall. During the quiet time over the holidays, I found myself at a confluence of thoughts: loss, grief, gratitude, and thinking a great deal about what I would characterize as missed opportunity. At the same time, in a less quiet moment, I also found myself rattling noisemakers and cheering with my two young boys as we celebrated and rang in the promise of another new year together.
During my drive to work on my first day back, I was struck by a passing comment on the radio, sometimes attributed to the late, great John Wooden: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” the voice said. In a moment, I was flooded with feelings of failure, and regret, for being too casual, nearsighted, focused on the work of today and never creating the “right time” with my dad. I hadn’t planned on his death occurring when it did. In that moment, it occurred to me that I really hadn’t planned on his life, either.
At work that day, I found myself on a call with a sales leader who’d also run out of time. He, too, had been distracted, focused on tactics and neglecting his priorities. Now he was facing a looming new fiscal year and an inability to plan and create the impact that he knew to be possible. This is all too common; the process of planning too often is relegated to a time of year crunched closely to the beginning of the new fiscal year, causing the priorities and objectives defined at the beginning of the year to become missed opportunities. The failure to prepare and plan results in, well, failure.
Yet the fresh start of a new year brings hope, and often a resolution to learn and grow from the failures, regrets and missed opportunities of the prior year. For companies resolving to do better this year, here are some tips that I have picked up from those who are more often cheering and celebrating as one fiscal year closes and the next one begins.
1. Pick your battles. An important step in business planning is defining the key drivers of impact, typically where there is significant opportunity to improve and where improvement then translates into a meaningful benefit. We have a saying in our firm that 10 = 0: If you have 10 priorities, you really haven’t prioritized at all and you’re likely to succeed at zero of them.
2. Don’t stop now. The best organizations have realized that effective planning never really stops, and have developed an integrated approach to managing their businesses. As was true with planning for my Dad, you can’t plan for everything, though the companies with sustained and proactive planning will be the best prepared when something does happen.
3. It takes a village. Important initiatives fail for many reasons, though an inability to get organizational alignment or consensus may be the most common. Effective planning needs to be an inclusive process, with varied stakeholders, roles and commitments. This approach will help ensure the best design, buy-in and success in execution.
4. Make the “right time.” The critical step to planning (and execution) success is acknowledging the lack of a true right time, and the importance of making time to give attention to things that matter. My wife still likes to tell people how I ridiculously built an elaborate spreadsheet to help us determine the “right time” to have our first child. Stop thinking about it and make it happen.
5. Be “system”-atic. Too often, the planning process is avoided because it’s manual and cumbersome. The final step to doing better is to identify a system to help operationalize the planning process, freeing up valuable time and enabling the team to focus not on process execution, but on the hard thinking that goes into proper and effective planning.
I am truly hopeful as I begin this new year, and I resolve to do better, to plan more, and to find myself cheering and celebrating in the “right time” as much as I can. I hope that you can, too.