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  • Writer's pictureTheunis van der Linde

How to start developing great planning and execution habits

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

To quote our Managing Partner who is frequently found quoting Aristotle

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

For an organization to be great at planning and execution (in other words to be effective and efficient) requires them to adopt good habits.

Apart from laying the foundation for a results-driven culture, such habits also lead to organizations being more resilient and less likely to experience a state of survival or feelings of frustration or distress.

Consider for a moment the schematic below.

The organizational state as an outcome of planning and execution

The organizational state is linked to and determined by the degree of effectiveness and efficiency, which remains fluid and subject to change as the focus and discipline around planning and execution changes.

Unsurprisingly, it is really difficult when organizations are suddenly forced to adapt their strategies to absorb fluctuations or bridge underperforming markets.

To become great at disciplined cost or spend management, or sniffing out and reducing operational and structural waste in a business is definitely no easy task; especially more so if it were not habitual before.

It pays therefore to establish and refine good habits that are embedded in the culture, widely adopted by people and brought to life though processes. This means organizations should have structured practices, continuously monitor performance, demand improvement and challenge results constantly.

Fuel that with investment, commitment and resources and make sure to repeat it over and over again; that is the start of creating and sustaining great habits. Easier said than done though. It takes hard work and perseverance to create habits of any nature, and for that reason we are sharing five things to start doing to help you be more effective at planning and more efficient at execution.

1. Use standardization to your advantage

Standardization can provide the necessary rigor to ensure everyone is on the same page and abide to the same rules while on the playing field.

This underpins the scale to which an organization will be able to measure how effective and how efficient they are. This specific aspect (scale of measurement) should not be open to interpretation.

It eliminates excessive options and removes the reliance on individual or personal preferences and opinions when it comes to critical performance issues. This will prevent opinions such as “I think this is worthwhile, let’s continue” or “the previous month’s performance exceeded expectations” and replace them with factual and target based result statements.

Organizations should absolutely try to extract and use the diverse experiences and background that people bring to the table. But they should contain and channel that into the development of acceptable standards that align to the organization’s goals.

Standardization should not be used to eliminate creativity and entrepreneurship, but designed to set and support better levels of performance.

Henry Ford was quoted as saying “If you think of standardization as the best that you know today, but which is to be improved tomorrow; you get somewhere’.

2. Make use of cautionary flags

Think of cautionary flags as the scoreboard or possession statistics telling you mid game that your game plan and tactics needs to change; your goal still remains to win the game.

Good habits include looking for and recognizing wanting signs that appear, and then reacting accordingly (or plan for them pro-actively).

You can apply a wide range of freedom and creativity here. Define flags based on performance variance, progress, external or uncontrollable issues, etc.

But there are some basics to keep in mind when using such indicators or early warning systems:

  • They should be leading indicators, i.e. be 'activated' before the issue is beyond the point of no return

  • They should be specific and point to the areas or aspects that require action

  • They should be linked to actions or options, i.e. what do we do now and who is responsible

  • They should consider a component of risk value trade off, i.e. what is the risk if we choose to accept the situation that can potentially develop.

This usually requires upfront preparation and a good understanding of the critical performance drivers of the organization, coupled with establishing monitoring mechanisms at appropriate intervals.

3. Be consistent and constant

Taking consistent as meaning “something that does not vary” and constant as meaning “something that does not stop”, combining the two terms makes for a powerful thought. Strive to create behaviours and actions that does not vary and does not stop. In other words, commit and persevere.

This means that even during times when bottom line performance is in the black (smooth sailing), continue to apply the same diligence and rigour around reviewing and demanding effectiveness and efficiency.

When the organization decides to skip the weekly or monthly business review because “we did really well”, it can quickly turn into a self-fulfilling pattern that leads to habitual skipping which may lead to total disappearance from sight.

This typically signals the start of a bad habit.

When there is a re-energized focus placed on such detailed reviews / activities after an absence, the momentum has typically been lost and processes stalled.

This often creates amazement and surprise, but more often than not the data and information has become disorganized, progress has slipped on key initiatives, team members have reorganized to focus on other jobs and tasks and so on.

It can then be very difficult to get back to previous levels.

4. Link the effort to the goals

Typically, when adopting a new habit, you have an end goal in mind; eat a healthy diet in order to avoid health issues; revise homework straight after school in order to increase knowledge and embed the daily content; etc.

The same is true for creating good habits for planning and execution.

The link to the organization’s goals and results need to be known, communicated, shared and celebrated (or performance managed) frequently.

Nothing will demotivate teams more than them working hard for periods on end only to not realize why and how (and even if) impacts are made.

It will also encourage creative solutions to come to the forefront. When people understand how the tactics and plans are linked to the goals, suggestions on how to do things better may emerge.

5. Embrace the discomfort

Often, on a personal level, forming new habits will most likely create feelings of discomfort and unease. This is true in organizations as well.

See tip 1 again – make use of standardization. This will also help teams feel less uncertain if there is transparency and expectations around the process.

Incorporating a robust change leadership approach when forming new habits is a must have. Creating lasting habits and the success thereof relies very heavily on the organization's ability to navigate and embrace change.

I believe that the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus was quoted as saying “Change is the only constant in life”.

Knowing this, it places the responsibility upon the leaders to embrace and lead the organization through the various stages of change, as opposed to being oblivious and allowing the levels of discomfort to turn into panic (distress).

Final Thoughts

The very nature of forming habits is that it takes time and repetition.

To create good planning and execution habits is not an overnight event; it is not the latest fad that consultants could design and instill in your organization without your participation and guidance; it is not achieved just because the top brass in the organization sent an email stating it to be ‘this is how we do thing now’.

It is achieved, and more importantly maintained, by embedding it into the culture and not deviating based on market conditions, unflattering results that may surface or personal preferences.

It involves asking the tough questions, prioritizing that which is relevant and important, demanding better and not backing down when times are tough; and more importantly, when times are good.

Often, when times are good, it becomes too easy to approve expenditures, even if un-budgeted. It becomes too easy to hide inefficiencies because no one is asking the tough questions. It becomes too easy to explain away the variances against target or budget; or even worse yet, no one asks for explanations why performance was sub-par.

If not examined and understood carefully and scrutinized constantly, inefficiencies in organizational practices may not be exposed or directly visible.

Good habits will ensure that the key aspects and performance drivers are reviewed and scrutinized at all times, which leads to a focus on input (planning and execution) rather than output.

This can allow organizations to operate with minimal disruptions when markets fluctuate and simply continue with the normal rigour and discipline that their good habits have brought about.

As strategies and goals change over time due to changing regulatory landscapes, geo political aspects, different consumer needs, etc. the discipline and great habits created will allow teams to adapt and continue applying the same discipline to planning and execution.

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