Four tips for successful planning for frontline managers

Organisations know that agility is the key to manoeuvering through the whirlwind of ever-changing demands they face. Seismic changes in technology and our communities have influenced our work ethics and our positions on working from home, work-life balance, and global economies. Amongst these shifting sands, having solid goals in place is critical to your success. And creating step-by-step plans to ensure you are on track to meet those goals is a necessity.

At ActiveOps, we talk to managers at all levels about how they set targets, assess progress, and map their future courses of action. We hear their frustration with the process; with how their efforts can be upended by a sudden change in direction, by competing priorities, or simply because they didn’t get the support they needed from their colleagues. These setbacks can be demoralising, leading these managers to ask “why bother if all my efforts are going to be ignored?” Managers who can often articulate in perfect detail the struggles their team face, are reluctant to push for change because their efforts never result in anything worthwhile.

If this sounds familiar, it may be worth examining your planning process. How well does it deliver agility in the real world? Can it bend and sway with those ever-changing demands that are guaranteed to create hurdles? A good plan always contains specific goals, and documents: where you are now, where you want to be, and how you’ll get there. But when it comes to actually walking the path, you’ll need more. There will always be someone who disagrees with you. Inevitably you’ll have to deal with unexpected glitches and these days, you can pretty much count on those goals you set to shift.

So how do you manage keep your plan alive when faced with all this adversity? I talked to managers from multiple organisations, who are finding success through their planning process, and it came down to four key points:

  1. They had the facts to back why their goals were important.
  2. They were led by what they wanted, without being limited by perceptions of what they were capable of.
  3. They involved everyone around them in this effort – especially their own team – from creation to completion.
  4. They took the quick wins as they came and used them to demonstrate success.

1: Build your plan with facts

We all know how to set goals the SMART way. If I want to establish a level of output from my team, my goal will typically outline specific numbers and timelines to be achieved. How many widgets an employee should produce per hour, what the average handle time is for a customer call, or what the delivery time for a standard order is, for example. But only with a full understanding of the data can you justify your goal and understand the challenges to achieving it.

The amount of questions that could be answered are limitless. How much time goes into producing a work item? What about the cost? What are the hurdles that your team faces? What are the impacts of those hurdles? How many items do we currently produce? Are some days busier than others? What is the impact on quality? A good repository of data, and a suite of analytics tools will help tremendously not only in goal creation but in all stages of the process through implementing changes and troubleshooting glitches, to assessing what has been achieved. You may already have this. If you don’t, you need to get it.

It’s a big effort to amass all that information, particularly up front, but it’s worth the time. Firstly, it provides true insight into the challenges your colleagues face. This is particularly important if your plan is going to impact them. The data may uncover things you hadn’t even considered, that could influence the path that you want to take to achieving your goal. While the plan is in action, these bits of data will help inform any decisions you need to make when the unexpected pops up. (Note: the unexpected will pop up!)

Creating a plan means first understanding where you currently stand. Quantify your work, study the workflow and assess your teams’ current capabilities. Listen to what your team, customers, and colleagues are telling you and dig deeper to truly answer why your goal and your plan – is important.

2: Prioritise the need first

Managers often short-change themselves and their teams when they create plans. They start from the perspective of what they think their team is capable of, when instead they should start with what the business needs. We had a customer who received a substantial pile of work every January. For years, the team would need four months to complete this work through many hours of overtime (and burnout), and often at the risk of missing SLAs on their regular day-to-day activities.

We sat down with the manager to create a proactive plan for this period, and we asked them what their dream scenario would be for completing this work. They thought it would be great if it was done within a month – but were quick to note, “that would be impossible!” Rather than accept that assumption, we put a hypothetical plan together, to see what it would take to meet this tighter target. The result indicated they would need an additional 105 hours per day. To the manager, this seemed like proof that the plan was unrealistic – but much to their surprise, when they shared this need with other departments, they found several managers of other teams willing to help. They ended up getting 50 hours per day, which fell short of our lofty goal – but did mean they were able to complete the project in less than two months, and with no overtime, which was still a significant improvement on their starting position.

Of course, we can’t guarantee these results in every instance, but lots can be possible if you focus on the goal, are realistic about what effort is required and are open to ways to make it happen. I often tell managers to be selfish! After working out what would be required to achieve your goal, you can start to consider possible solutions. Check to see if you can get help from other areas of the business. Find out if any work can be moved out to another date. Are there obstacles that could be addressed such as technology or training? Even if you don’t get the help you need, you’ll at least have a handle on what your challenges are – and for that matter, so will others.

3: Share your plan with others

One of the major reasons plans fail is because someone or something comes out of nowhere with a perceived higher priority than yours. In many cases, there’s nothing you can do about it. Business needs can change on a dime! You can mitigate this, and even avoid it, by making yourself heard. Your plans should not be kept secret. Share them with everyone, particularly those who have the power to impact them. Naturally, your superiors need to be in the know. Your colleagues should be engaged in your plan as well. Ensure they understand why your plan is important. The details and the maths you’ve done will help you articulate your vision and get them on board. Be prepared to take in their feedback, because it’s possible that your plan might bump up against their plan. Having conversations early and incorporating everyone’s needs will help guarantee greater success.

And it’s essential not to forget about your team members. They need to be included from the start. This means getting their agreement to your proposed solution, and then understanding what their role will be in making it successful. Your employees will often have their ear closer to the ground than you do, giving them interesting insights into critical elements such as workflow and customer perception. Plus, they’ll likely be carrying out the important tasks, or at the very least be impacted by the direction you take. They’ll be more invested in executing on a plan that they helped to build, rather than one they were told to go with – particularly if they don’t agree with it.

Lastly, don’t forget to share your incremental results, too. You should be reviewing your plan on a regular basis, perhaps weekly, or at the very least, monthly. Let everyone know about the progress, including successes and failures. If goals weren’t met, seek to understand why, and share that with the group. By welcoming ongoing feedback, your plan will become front of mind for others, and this increases the chances of it being successful.

4: Don’t forget to cash the cheque!

One of our founding principles at ActiveOps is “use it or lose it!” If you’ve done the work of detailing your plan, plotting out your activities and resources, and ensuring that all relevant parties are on board, you’re going to start to see results. You need to reap the rewards of that effort.

If your efforts to speed up the process on an assembly line have worked, what are you doing as a result? Are you getting more widgets out the door? Are you freeing up resources to do something else? Has it alleviated some level of stress among your staff? Has customer satisfaction improved? Whatever it is, document it and brag mercilessly, because a well-executed plan doesn’t just deliver operational benefits – it also demonstrates yours and your team’s competence.

In most cases, your plan won’t deliver one large result at the end. Instead, it’s going to produce small wins throughout. Use these to your advantage. If it’s possible, add up the dollars saved, and attempt to express the potential future gains that these results will have. Broadcast your wins wherever you can. Share reports, speak up at meetings, perhaps even host a celebration. These anecdotes will help to keep the enthusiasm alive among your partners as the plan continues to roll out.

The planning process is not a one-and-done activity. It’s cyclical, and will evolve over time, just as your business will.

  1. Ensure that your goals and targets can be backed up with facts. Why you’re doing something is just as important as how you’re doing it.
  2. Keep a strong data repository and refer to it often to understand workflow within your department. Use it to map out your team’s capabilities and then compare it to the business needs. Understanding the cost and effort to achieving one strategy over another will help you and your team make sound decisions.
  3. To get your plans across the finish line, you need advocates from all levels. Your plan should be a public document, understood and agreed upon by your superiors, your colleagues, your staff, and anyone who may be impacted by it.
  4. Don’t wait for results to come to you. Scoop them up as you see them – and make them public. If your team’s efforts have seen a savings in time or if they’ve produced a better result, you need to broadcast this to the business. These little successes will add credibility, create more advocacy around you, and combat any adversity.