Many changes we encounter in the business world are driven by external events: the development of new technology, geopolitical shifts, or the moves of competitors. Here's how to see around corners so you can better predict and plan for future occurrences.
- As a manager, it's your job to guide your team and give them just the right amount of direction to help them succeed. That's hard enough on its own, with people's different personalities and learning styles, but compounding the challenge is that you never really know when circumstances beyond your control might change everything and force you to alter your plans. A team member might go on a medical leave or a competitor might up the ante with a breakthrough technology. The higher-ups at your company might announce a new product line or service they want to launch immediately or disruption in certain regions like natural disasters or political unrest could necessitate putting your expansion plans on hold.
The only thing we know for certain is that we can't predict everything. So how can you elevate your ability to see around corners so you can better predict and plan for future occurrences? Here are three strategies worth thinking about. First, rethink your planning horizon. Rita McGrath, Professor at Columbia Business School, did a comprehensive survey of successful firms and realized that one major commonality they all had was that instead of the traditional annual planning cycle, they had accelerated it, dramatically! The most successful companies often employed a quarterly planning cycle, which enabled them to respond more quickly to changing circumstances in the marketplace and adapt their strategies in real time rather than waiting another nine months and falling behind.
Second, get input and insights from all team members. Strategic planning has, in corporate circles, traditionally been a top down exercise with senior leaders doing the thinking and front line employees doing the doing. It's true that senior leaders, by dint of their responsibilities, can see the big picture about the company and the marketplace trends it faces. Which is essential, but they sometimes lack in understanding of the front line realities of the business. Whether team members work in customer support or research and development, getting their insights can give your company a critical advantage when it comes to understanding what's really happening on the ground.
What are customers asking for? What are they having trouble with? What new possibilities might exist at a technical level, that could be exploited? If you don't ask front line employees, you'll never know. So bring them into the process. Finally, it's worthwhile to build more slack into your schedule. This sounds like anathema in the corporate world, which is so used to optimizing resources and cutting out anything extraneous. But if we accept that unpredictable events do occur, and with decent regularity, and we know that by definition we can't plan for them, then the only alternative is to react to them quickly once they do occur.
And that takes time and inevitably pulls us off course. If we don't want the efforts and projects we've planned to falter, we need to deliberately build in enough slack to accommodate unexpected occurrences. Whether it's a shortage of materials, which we can compensate for by allowing more time for production, or the need to redirect staff time toward an urgent new initiative. This means, where possible, and do this in consultation with your boss, holding back a small reserve of funding and/or staff, just in case.
It might seem wasteful not to deploy every resource all the time, at every moment, but that slack may turn out to be a lifesaver when you need it most. You can't plan for particular uncertain circumstances, you just don't know. But with these steps, you can become adaptable by planning for uncertainty itself.