A Successful 2021 Requires Planning in 2020

Updated: Feb 3


You can get there from here...no matter where you are starting from.


It’s that time of year again! When most of us plan for the upcoming year and beyond. But what does this look like in the midst of the most ambiguous operating environment most of us have ever known? The best advice I’ve heard on the topic is attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower who purportedly said “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”...

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

The underlying truth in his statement is that value lies in the planning process more than the product itself. Whether you’re guiding your entire enterprise, the revenue and customer functions, or some other element, the lesson is the same--planning matters, especially in times of high uncertainty.

You are likely in one of three planning spaces right now:

  1. Already completed 2021 planning

  2. Expecting to complete 2021 planning before the new year

  3. Waiting until 2021

Each of the three suggests small steps to take right now so you can benefit from the planning process--even if perfect plans remain elusive.

2021 Planning is Done!

Congratulations on pushing forward with so many unknowns! You likely made some assumptions about the upcoming year as part of your process. With plans as a starting point, you’re well-positioned to do relevant environmental scanning and monitoring. List each of your assumptions about 2021 and then 1-2 measures or indicators you can look for to validate how your assumptions are holding up over time. For example, if your 2021 plan assumed B2B customers would ramp-up spending in Q1 2021 resulting in your ability to re-start rate increases you paused during 2020, then you should monitor for this...right now. If you assumed a major product release would be ready on 1/1/2021 then monitor the product roadmap and sprint schedule to ensure this is realistic. The list goes on and on but any assumption that fed your planning should now be monitored and continue to influence your approach to 2021.

Planning on Planning

The nice thing about planning right before the end of the year is you’re well-positioned to pivot from planning right into action. Verify that your planning activities include a tangible set of next steps, with owners, deadlines, dependencies, and metrics. The common mistake of end-of-year planners is allowing “next year” to really start in April. Don’t be that leadership team. Get specific about what needs to get done right now so Q1 matters. What can you do in the next 6 weeks to make sure your 2021 plan starts becoming a reality immediately? For example, if your 2021 plans signal a change to your team structure or org alignment, you need to spend these next few weeks making 1/1/2021 your go-live date...not your project start date.

Wait and See

These days I’m sympathetic to those skipping or delaying their normal planning cycle. A main argument is that COVID-19 (and the rest of Pandora’s Box v2020) put the organization in crisis mode. By definition, these leaders are constantly planning>executing, planning>executing right now anyway. Choose your metaphor--tending to trees ignores the forest; just because threats and opportunities aren’t in your headlights doesn’t mean they aren’t there, you can’t get a birds-eye view from the ground, etc. If you’re in this place right now seek to gain the advantages of a strategic planning process even as you enact other, more immediate, plans. Acknowledge the forest, the unlit road, and the 50,000-foot view by re-examining the macro environment. How might your customers and potential customers be changing? What set of capabilities will help your teams thrive in environments other than the one we’re in today? What has crisis mode taught you about your own leadership? Looking at a few relevant macro questions doesn’t require a full planning effort, yet you still reap the benefit of the exploration.

Yes, many of our actual plans will be sidelined or over-written in due time. But the process of planning is a basic necessity for optimal organizational performance and effective leadership. No matter where you are in the cycle, a few small steps add value to your efforts and help you become a creator of the future you’re stepping into.

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