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In times of uncertainty, singular plans are history

singular plans

What ascending a testing and arduous mountain has taught me about the future of business planning.

Recently my wife and fellow director Liddy Bakker and I climbed Mt Taranaki. After 29 years in Aotearoa New Zealand, I had been atop many of the North Island peaks, but the ‘lonely mountain’ had not been one of them. It’s a particularly unforgiving place, and sadly people still lose their lives on the mountain. Our hearts go out to those who have suffered loss.

The story of our trek is a wonderful analogy of what business planning is now all about, and how it’s different from the pre-Covid, more certain times. This is especially relevant now New Zealand is back in level 4 lockdown. First the story though.

The night before we set off from the North Egmont Camphouse, we had seen three conflicting weather forecasts, with conditions to climb the mountain ranging from excellent, to good, to mediocre. Three different futures, all possible, all requiring different approaches, and likely all leading to different outcomes.

We departed in the dark with a firm commitment to each other not to fall into the cognitive trap of completion bias. We would, at given points in our journey, check-in and evaluate the current situation. We updated ourselves on the latest weather forecast, we observed the conditions, and we assessed our own condition. We determined our plan for the next section before we set off again. At each stage, we were prepared to turn around and complete an alternative (non-summit) hike, still able to soak up the beauty around us.

At first light, we reached Tahurangi and checked in before starting the many steps above the translator tower and lodge. At the bottom of the scree slope, we checked in again and tested that the conditions would not result in a slip ‘n slide event. At the bottom of the Lizard, the final rocky lava deposit ridge before the crater and peak, we confirmed conditions were favourable for the final trek up, knowing we needed plenty of reserves as the summit is only halfway a successful ascent and descent.

As the photo suggests, we traversed the snow in the crater towards the peak in bluebird conditions. A windless, cloudless morning to the top. On our way down, the clouds blew in from the direction of Paritutu and the Port and the peak disappeared when we reached the point where the Lizard meets the scree slope. The conditions deteriorated with cold north-westerly winds blowing below the clouding-over peak. We put on the extra layers with some to spare and completed our descend – our achy knees taking almost as long down as up. A developing plan well executed.

Now I’ve done my fair share of X-matrix ‘Hoshin Kanri’ business planning, a very powerful and effective planning method to link purpose to strategic goals, initiatives, RASCI, and key goals and performance indicators. This is ‘SMART’ on steroids, like every Lean tool highly visual. It is a process-geek dream come true, a ‘Theory of Everything’ attempt to connect the why, what, who, how, and when for the next three to five years, all on ONE page!

My love for the X-matrix was recently challenged by a new book making a case for a different approach to business planning.  In “Uncharted – how uncertainty can power change”, Margaret Heffernan argues that imagining and planning for multiple futures is more effective than having very detailed singular plans that will be all but wiped out with mass disruption events. Eerily accurate when released in February 2020, just as Covid was spreading globally, Heffernan outlines how we (society, business, and government) were completely unprepared to deal with uncertainty. She says that many risks in life are “generally certain, but specifically ambiguous”. We know that something can happen, but not where or when, or what impact it would have on who. Challenging our “prediction addiction”, Heffernan argues that we need to radically change how we think, plan, and react.

How can you change your business planning process in the era of unpredictability? Think of it like ascending Taranaki:

  • Imagine different futures, all possible, all requiring different approaches, and all leading to different desirable outcomes.
  • Develop plans that allow for these multiple outcomes but think more of an intersecting roads model than a single thick straight line.
  • Frequently check-in to determine which future is materialising; assess, adjust if required, plan the next stage and while doing this, check again: Check, Adjust, Plan, Do – Repeat.
  • Understand your collective and individual biases and develop strategies to stay in touch with reality.

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei

(Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain)

 About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People.