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The Five Cs of Successful Planning

by AIMM MAITD

This article first appeared in Learning and Development in Australia, Vol 29 Issue 4, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

Have you ever sat in a meeting listening to one of the participants and thinking "Didn't we as a group decide to do the opposite a couple of month's ago?"? Have you ever got to the end of the year and realized that only half of the managers in your organisation have adopted the new system, or that your team has fallen well short of achieving their objectives? If so, then you may need to have a closer look at your plan and how you have implemented it. Over the years working for a number of organisations, I have experienced the full gamut of factors that have hindered and have helped achieve planned outcomes.

I have crystallized these learnings into a practical and easy to remember model that will assist you achieve your and your team's objectives. The model is applicable to activities as basic as organizing your team's leave calendar to the more complex planning and rollout of the annual training program. I have called this model The Five Cs of Successful Planning. Each C represents a phase in the planning cycle. Attending to each of these phases will greatly improve your chances of success. Conversely, neglecting a phase will increase significantly the risk of failure. The model is represented below.

Figure 1 – The Five Cs of Successful Planning

The Planning Cycle - Create, Commit, Communicate, Carry Out, Check

As you can see, the phases are sequential and cyclic. Actions in a prior phase will need to be completed essentially before progressing to the next. Haste resulting from impatience or unrealistic deadlines is a recipe for failure. Completing all phases of the cycle will take considerably longer than a less rigorous approach, however, as the well-known saying goes, "The longest distance between two points is the shortcut".

The planning cycle is iterative in order to allow for modifications to the plan along the way. Rarely will the plan be implemented exactly as originally thought. There may be factors outside of your and your team's control or that could not reasonably have been foreseen. Building in flexibility through planning for changes to the plan will allow you to surmount hurdles placed in your path in a timely and effective manner.

Let us now look at each phase of the planning cycle and discern the most important activities and attitudes required.

Create

In creating the plan, it is important to involve all stakeholders. Stakeholders are people who have an interest in the execution and outcome of the plan and may be impacted either positively or negatively. Getting the buy-in of the major stakeholders is critical to the plan's success, as a disenfranchised stakeholder may sabotage the plan when you are well into execution. As a case in point, a number of years ago I was called in as part of a plan to provide production technical support. The existing engineer, not having been consulted about the changes, felt disenfranchised, and so would embark on a "go slow" whenever a request was made of him. So, it pays to involve stakeholders up front.

The creation phase is itself iterative, as you draft each version and submit it to the stakeholders for comment. Proposed changes will then need to be incorporated until all stakeholders are reasonably satisfied. Be sure to document the plan, making it clear who is expected to do what and by when. Our engineer friend in the previous story would have exhibited much less resistance if expectations were clarified early on.

Also, list any assumptions made, as this will avoid costly misunderstandings further down the track. When compiling the annual training plan, for example, you may not know the cost for each planned training intervention. For each item on my own training plans, I document as part of the plan assumptions made about the number of participants, cost per training day, likely vendors, and so on.

Commit

As you are working with the stakeholders in the Create phase, identify who has approval authority for the plan and authority to commit resources. For plans with a lot at stake, I suggest obtaining formal sign-off from the required authorities as well as from the other major stakeholders. If you have involved the stakeholders in the Create phase, this will not be too difficult. However, I have been taught the painful lesson more than once that a signature does not equate necessarily to genuine commitment. Just recently, a senior manager I approached lamented to me that the three-year training plan serves no useful purpose, and then surprised me by signing it on the spot.

Where possible, get face-to-face with stakeholders to explain the plan and the purpose behind it. Allowing for free two-way communication facilitates genuine understanding and a real aligning of attitudes. It is for this reason that I suggest never relying on emails to gain commitment, especially when it is a major initiative or you do not have a prior relationship of genuine trust with the stakeholders.

Communicate

Send the plan out to stakeholders and everyone who is expected to act in accordance with the plan. Once again, do not rely on email, or any other form of asynchronous one-way communication, to inform people of their roles and responsibilities in executing the plan. Briefing sessions either in person, tele- or web-conference work best, where there is opportunity to ask questions and get immediate feedback.

Where you expect staff in other areas of the organisation to carry out parts of the plan conscientiously in order to ensure the plan's success, one powerful technique is for staff to receive the briefing from their managers. I have seen many programs falter because it appeared driven by "them" in another department. This is why I recommend a pre-course discussion between staff and their manager before staff attend any training programme. Here, again, managers will need to use two-way communication and be genuinely committed to the plan themselves.

Where genuine commitment is lacking, there is a real risk in relying on senior and middle managers to filter information through the various layers of management to the frontline worker. The message may not get through at all or bear little resemblance to the original. In some cases, I have seen my original information pack sent by email with no attempt to engage staff. This is a familiar story also recounted by a number of my colleagues. Hence the importance of the previous Commit phase.

Carry Out

If the first three phases of the planning cycle were conducted adequately, the execution phase will be off to a good start. Where one or more of the previous phases were conducted poorly, trouble will show up sooner or later. Deadlines may be missed, budgets overspent or poor service or product quality delivered.

I recall a project that I was managing going off the rails a number of weeks into plan execution. The Continuous Improvement Team had completed the ten week training program and was well into building a business case for an improvement initiative when the front-line supervisor began bad-mouthing the team and putting obstacles in its path. In response to increasing levels of frustration, most team members had threatened to resign from the team. Even though the supervisor was philosophically opposed to the plan, in a classic case of groupthink, he had agreed publicly to the plan at the managers' briefing session a number of weeks earlier. Which of the previous phases do you think this incident exposed as being poorly done?

As the plan progresses, record activities carried out, resources used and the products or services delivered. Doing so will ensure an easier time in the final phase. Also, as the plan progresses, record any issues affecting the execution of the plan as they arise. This will also assist you carry out the next phase.

Check

As you record activities, expenditure and products/services delivered, compare progress with the plan at regular intervals. Doing so will expose problems and potential problems as they arise. Identifying them and resolving them early will save you much time, energy and disappointment.

Progress checks can be made with your team and/or representative stakeholders at major points along the way or at regular intervals, such as weekly or monthly. This is also the time to identify and resolve issues that have not yet come to the surface. Keep in mind that problems ignored never go away. For the example cited above, my response was to organize a meeting with the recalcitrant supervisor's manager, my manager and myself to resolve the issue.

Stumbling blocks can be handled in either of two ways. The first option is to create a Corrective Action Plan to get the project back on track. You may need to call in extra resources, reassign tasks, and so on. In our example, the Corrective Action Plan involved scheduling team meetings so that they would encroach less on production time. Alternatively, if the current plan is not salvageable in that you are unable to deliver promised products or services, you will need to revise and agree a new plan.

In either case, the planning cycle begins again. The Corrective Action Plan will become a plan in itself that you will create, gain commitment, communicate, carry out and check progress. Where you have revised the existing plan, you will progress through the next iteration of The Five Cs of the planning cycle.

When the goals of the plan have been achieved, or, alternatively, you have abandoned the plan, conduct a final check. This final check, or post-implementation review, has a somewhat different emphasis. The objective here is to learn what worked well and what did not work well so that you and your team can use these learnings in the formulation and execution of your next plan.

Gather your team and the stakeholders together and get each to listen openly and honestly to the others' feedback. Avoid laying blame. The goal here is to build relationships and to look to the future. Group learnings gained from the last post-implementation review I conducted were significant. Review participants identified a range of factors that will help us in the future assist trainees apply and further develop their skills once they return to the workplace.

The Five Cs model is also an effective tool to assist you conduct your review. For each of the five phases, ask your team and stakeholders how efficiently and effectively each was performed. Look at the hard measures, such as resources used and time to complete, as well as the soft measures, such as degree of co-operation and clarity of roles and responsibilities. Have someone record the results. If your plan was a success, don't forget to reward yourself and your team for a job well done. And next time you start to plan or review how you went, don't forget The Five Cs of Successful Planning.

Copyright © Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, process consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at office@businessperform.com

Leslie Recommends
Managing Change in the Workplace

For practical help with your change program, check out Leslie's resource kit, Managing Change in the Workplace. Its tools, exercises, techniques and tips cover every aspect of managing change. Visit the Managing Change in the Workplace information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using this practical change management guide and workbook today.

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