Planning When You Don’t Know What to Plan For

By Kristen Harris

Have you been part of a conversation like this lately?

“It’s year-end and time for our annual planning session!”

“Seriously?! How can we possibly write an annual plan? What are we planning for? This year has been crazy, and we have no idea what’s going to happen next year!”

Planning is always hard, but this year it’s incredibly challenging. Who knows what will happen? Who knew everything this year would happen! (If 2020 were a movie, people would say it was ridiculous and unbelievable…yet Here. We. Are.)

Which begs the question, how do you plan when you don’t know what to plan for?

The same way you plan every year. Realistically you never know exactly what to plan for or precisely what will happen. Planning is preparing for the future, not predicting it. It’s a combination of uncertainty and excitement, overwhelm and possibility, stirred up with a whole bunch of belief that things will work out. 

Here’s our approach to planning this year (and any year):

First, do your research. Read trend reports, forecasts, and other useful predictions from smart people who make predictions for a living. You can find information from industry associations, economic organizations, management consultants like McKinsey, trend forecasters like Trend Hunter, and other thought leaders. No one person knows everything, but you’ll see repeated patterns, trends, and predictions by utilizing multiple sources. 

Look for answers to questions like:

  • “What’s changing?”

  • “What’s staying the same?”

  • Specific to this year, “what will return to the way it was pre-COVID, and what will never be the same again?”

  • “What are the biggest risks?”

  • “What are the biggest opportunities?”

Next, distill this broad information down to your specific situation. Pick out the information that applies to your particular business or industry. 

Ask questions like:

  • “How might this big picture trend apply to me or my business?”

  • “Where do the risks or opportunities apply to our specific situation?”

  • “Does this align or conflict with our mission or values?”

  • “What trends or opportunities align with our unique abilities?” 

  • “Why are we the right people to solve this problem?”

Now, distill this information down to what you can and should tackle over the next year. Maybe three years max… it’s practically impossible for me to think further out than that!

Narrow down all of the trends, ideas, opportunities, and shiny objects by asking questions like: 

  • “What should we start doing? Stop doing? Keep doing?”

  • This year specifically consider, “Did anything change due to COVID that we need to continue with, double-down on, or return to the previous state asap?”

  • “What must we do to succeed next year?” Depending on your current situation, in 2021, your question might be, “what must we do to survive next year?” Acknowledge your current reality.

  • “What are our top priorities?” Identify the top 3-5 items you need to focus on. You really can only tackle a few at a time; make them count.

Congrats! You have a plan. Now, give yourself a reality check:

  • Can you realistically accomplish all of this?

  • Does the math add up? Can you add customers, increase sales, cut costs, hire employees, etc., at the pace required to accomplish this plan? 

  • Do you need any backup plans? Based on 2020, yes, you do.

  • Think about if/then scenarios, e.g., “if A happens then we’ll do B, but if X happens then we’ll do Y.” (For example, many companies are saying, “If kids go back to school in February, then we’ll return to the office in March. But if schools are remote until summer, then we’ll return in August.”)

Now it’s time to execute! Work towards the plan you’ve created, with frequent check-ins to measure progress. Pull out those if/then scenarios or backup plans as needed; make new ones whenever something unexpected comes your way. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected and pivot quickly.

All in all, planning when you don’t know what to plan for is the same as any other year. We can never 100% know what will happen, but making plans can be so much fun, filled with direction, hope, and excitement.

As this year wraps up, take time to daydream about the future while preparing for the unknown. Take time to make a plan.

P.S. Many companies are planning for how they’ll hire or contract out work next year, and many people are planning for the next step in their career. If either of those items is on your agenda, contact us and let us know how we can help!