Recently I’ve been thinking a bunch about planning, and have been casting around for resources to work through while refining my approach. To my good fortune, my previous colleague, Brie Wolfson, has been working on a project delving into company process, The Kool-Aid Factory, and she has an excellent issue on planning.
(Note that I’m abbreviating The Kool-Aid Factory as TKAF from here on out.)
TKAF defines the goals of planning as:
Focus on the right global priorities
Ownership is clear
Coordination across shared workstreams
High shipping velocity
Work is appropriately visible across the organization
Shared enthusiasm about the direction of the company
TKAF’s argument, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is that
as long as your accomplishing those goals, then your process is suitable!
If your process isn’t accomplishing thoes goals, then it’s inappropriate to your current situation.
There are so many companies and each company changes over time, that it’s folly to narrow your approach
to any particular format.
TKAF breaks planning into five phases:
1: Vision – where you’re trying to go
2: Reality – where you actually are today
3: Decisions – concretely what do you prioritize and resource?
4: The Plan – what will you do over a given period of time (e.g. next quarter)
5: Accountability and Execution Preparedness – how do you make sure you’re able to accomplish the plan and that you are accomplishing it?
Parts of this breakdown remind me of Good Strategy, Bad Strategy a bit,
which also emphasizes the role of understanding reality before determining the path forward.
My experience is that most bad planning results from either leadership or teams who are disconnected from reality,
so this certainly resonates with me.
Phase 1: Vision
The core of this phase is the Longterm Vision Statement which describes where the company wants
to go over a long (5+ years) time horizon. This should explicitly ignore your current constraints,
and is meant to create directional alignment by ensuring all plans point towards the same destination.
Importantly, visions have to fit into the evolving political, social, and economic ecosystems around your
company, which is tricky to do in a world where things are changing so quickly.
There’s an interesting quote in TKAF from Facebook, describing Facebook’s approach to visions:
“With each step forward (in this industry), the landscape you’re walking on changes. So, we have a pretty good idea of where we want to be in six months, and where we want to be in 30 years. And every six months, we take another look at where we want to be in 30 years to plan out the next 6 months. It’s a little bit shortsighted and a little bit not. But any other approach guarantees everything you release is already obsolete.”
I agree with the broad idea here, but it’s also an interesting example of how companies
get overly attached to their current planning approach as opposed to accepting the reality
that planning approaches necessarily change over time along with your constraints: it’s
folly to imagine that there’s one durably “best” approach.
“Company State Readout” – describe current state, perhaps using
TKAF’s Company State template.
(Having spent a decent amount of time over the last couple years iterating on “Business Review” meeting formats,
I think this is a great template. I’d perhaps add a section on greatest scaling challenges.)
“Keeping the Lights On” – describe the work necessary to continue operating the business.
(The “Business Review” template I’ve been iterating on merges this and Company State Readout,
although I think there’s a lot of merit in splitting them out as two different discussions.
Primarily the ideal audience for the two discussions is a bit different.)
“Resourcing View” – how will you resource the roadmap?
Switching from notes to editorializing a bit, I think these are a great set of documents,
although I think I’d personally lean towards selecting a different set.
For example, my most recent efforts have centered on:
Business Review – combination of “State Readout”, “Keeping the Lights On”, and “Roadmap”.
Scoped to the relevant area of the business for one business leader (e.g. engineering)
or joint leadership team (e.g. product, design and engineering for a consumer business line).
Recruiting Plan – how is recruiting capacity allocated against needs?
Recruiting plans are, in my experience, more valuable than resourcing plans.
This is because resourcing plans tend to represent an overly optimistic view of team growth and efficiency,
whereas recruiting plans represent the fundamental constraints being dealt with.
Both miss out on the reality that in a fast-growing company training matters even more than hiring or headcount,
but I’ve never seen a company with an effective tool for measuring engineering productivity so
I’ve sort of ignored that despite the fact that it’s probably a viable technique for many
departments (e.g. I’ve seen customer experience departments do this well).
In my recent experience, that’s enough, but of course it’s going to depend on your
company, business and so on.
Phase 3: Decisions
Two fundamental components:
“Prioritization and Resourcing Decisions” – centralized leadership team resolves conflict
and constraints across teams. (Particularly love the emphasis on maintaining investments rather than
All of these work for some companies; none of these work for every company.
Phase 5: Accountability and Execution Preparedness
Have some sort of mechansism to ensure you’re capable of doing what you’ve
planned and are actually doing it. TKAF suggests reading their The Shipping Great Work Issue.
Personally, I’ve leaned on the Business Review document for this, although I appreciate
that I’ve in no way shared a business review document, so this isn’t a very helpful observation.
(I will try to extract a business review template for sharing.)
Altogether, I really enjoyed reading through the issue, and it’s given
me a fair amount to think through.
Although it hasn’t really answered my planning questions, it’s
given me a clear structure to react against that makes it possible
to start answering them myself.