Let’s start with a joke: A CEO asks one of his senior executives to prepare the annual plan for the upcoming year and wants to focus on the marketing and business development plan. After a couple of weeks, a status meeting was scheduled to present the preliminary deliverables. At the meeting, the senior manager presented his yearly plan: Two lines in excel, one for a 'marketing plan' and the second for a 'business development plan', with 52 columns to represent the weeks. Then, in every single cell in the plan is one word: "On-Going."
If it hadn’t been sad, it would have been funny.
One of my hobbies is 'planning'. Literally. A decade plan, a five-year plan and an annual.
There is some satisfaction that cannot be explained when you set goals for several years ahead, build a strategic plan, outline initial tactics and get going. Then, after a few years, you achieve the same goals. The thing is, real satisfaction does not come (only) from achieving the goals themselves; after all, the most vital internal desire for those goals was several years ago. The absolute satisfaction is after achieving the goal, looking back on all those years of work from the starting point, smiling. Like a mountaineer who reached the mountain's peak, looking at the view and contemplating his entire journey from the moment he decided to conquer the mountain till that very peak. Like a wormhole connecting a direct line from the past to the future, traversing throughout all dimensions of time.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of planning tools. For projects, software, product and company management. Starting with basic Excel and MS Project, and in recent years, new and high-quality tools such as Monday.com, ProWorkflow, Asana, Notion and more have come into the market. Note that this is a planning tool for projects, departments and companies.
But the catch is you can learn and master any planning tool and know all the features and tricks, but if you don't know *how to plan*, you are considered as a new driver in the Formula-1 racing car. It’s charming that you know to recognize the steering wheel and pedals, but you are definitely going to meet the wall in the first corner.
The Planning Layout Concept
Over the years, I have created one approach that has helped me dealing successfully with the planning-design issue, especially when it comes to startups that are full of uncertainty and whose plans are frequently changed. This approach is - the Planning Layered Approach. No matter which planning tool you use to manage your startup/company/project, using this method will make the design of your plan a success, better than any other approach. That includes the common one, which only concentrates on the "expert" aspect (for example, a product plan, focusing on the development time of the various parts, without linking to different elements outside the project itself).
The concept of the Layered approach is straightforward
There are seven layers of planning in a defined order while starting to build the plan from the bottom up.
As befits a building, the first floor holds the second floor and those above it. The second floor rests on the first one and holds the third floor and those above it... and so on. If there is a "fracture" (e.g. lack of planning or poor planning) in one of the "floors", all the floors above it will collapse as simple as that. The layers are described below.
The advantages of the approach
Not dependent on a specific planning tool, suitable for everyone.
It does not require prior knowledge of project management.
Crosses departments and teams.
The essence of the concept creates connections and dependencies that create a natural and correct order for the management tasks.
The layers of planning
Here are the seven layers of planning. Starting with the first base layer and moving up to the other layers:
Layer 7: Tasks
Layer 6: Individual
Layer 5: Department
Layer 4: Basic
Layer 3: Events
Layer 2: Constraints
Layer 1: Anchor
Notice that each Layer represents a “dimension”, usually managed by different people, employees and departments. Combining them all creates the perfect planning design. Even if, on the surface, it looks like each dimension “lives” by itself, the concept bridges the various dimensions and naturally creates an outline of synergy and relationship entities. Like the traffic laws that combine pedestrians, cars, trucks and trains into a whole movement, the various employees and managers must adhere to only one rule – to pay attention! Pay attention to the rest of the elements when building a plan wherever entering a new task, mission or milestone.
Examples of specification of the layers (arranged in the order of designing and building the planning):
Anchor: The foundation layer. Contains the basic rules such as working days (no work on Sunday/Friday), holidays (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, local holidays), Bank Holidays; and defined working hours.
Constraints: This is a layer reserved for entering any constraint that has a direct or indirect effect on the company's operations. Such as the termination of capital in the company fund (or new investment date); Tax year reporting date; Application dates for the grants, competitions and programs; Industrial strikes; Political (like elections or the Brexit due date if you are in the UK); Periods of slowdown in operations (usually August and December); Termination of a contract with a supplier or an agreement with a client; Termination of an employee visa, etc.
Events: Depending on the company's domain and the various departments, this is the Layer that contains all the different events that take place in the industry, whether the company takes part in them or not. For example, a new iPhone launch event, WebSummit, or a local conference, the company plans to attend.
Basic: The Basic Layer is designed as a planning aid to the management. In this Layer, all basic activities of the company level will be included. From the company’s goals such as product launch date, board meetings to scheduled employee vacations, maternity leave and employees’ termination/start dates.
Department: This is the management layer of the department’s managers. In this Layer will be included the goals and milestones of the various departments, as an outcome from the company's goals from the previous Layer, the Basic Layer. The “Department layer” will also include all social events such as a corporate outing or team evenings. Once completed, this Layer serves as the planning layer for the staff level and the individual employee.
Individual: This is the personal dimension in which the individual employee can input all his/her personal events that affect the micro-level work and work schedule. Such as a kindergarten graduation party of their kids or absence for personal reasons (visit a doctor, for example). Note that macro-level events like vacations should be included in Layer 3 - Basic, because it affects crosswise at the department level. The Individual Layer is managed in the employee's personal calendar and should be exposed to the other employees/managers in their team.
Tasks: The last row of stones in the planning wall. This is the task Layer itself and will be managed in the team project management system. It is also the busiest and most dynamic Layer. This Layer will be executed and managed by a single employee or by the most the team. The various tasks on the timeline will be derived from all the six layers on which it rests. As opposed to managing tasks Per-Se as a content list, the Layer of the Planning approach enables this Layer to run based on the rest of the planning elements, the various constraints and the lateral vision each manager aspires to and strives for.
Implementation and working methodology
We have made a lot of progress since planning by sticky notes, but to understand the complexity of the planning, for a moment, try to imagine the following analogy: A company has a vast wall exposed to all the company’s employees. The wall is 7 meters high (a meter per Layer) and 52 meters wide (meters per week per year). Now, imagine you are playing planning-Tetris, with the whole company. Infinity of complexity!
The set-up phases
As defined in the concept, proper planning will begin in the first Layer. At first, the data input should be done serially, Layer by Layer, in the given order (#1 to #7). Each manager/employee must fill the Gantt’s timeline in his/her Layer with *all* activities and events contained in their Layer, even if there is not necessarily a robust direct connection between the event and its specific project. Each time we climb a layer, the activities we feed, their locations and their continuation on the Gantt will be derived from the events in the lower layers just like Tetris.
When building the initial plan, it is essential to get into the details. The more activities and events included in each Layer (again, even if not directly related to the essence of the project/s), your planning will be:
A. Stronger and more stable; The plan's quality will be denser in multidimensional vision, which will significantly reduce surprises and changes in the schedule.
B. Flexible for changes; Making proactive changes in planning by scheduling or pivoting will become a relatively simple task, almost like rearranging a kitchen’s cabinet.
Just as every structure requires maintenance, so does your planning. Assuming you made the initial plan thoroughly, with thought and getting into details (this is the set-up phase). The ongoing planning updates are expected to be simple and easy. It is crucial to define and determine in advance when you do a review of your plan and check the gaps between the actual to the plan. And update the plan accordingly. When you must regularly update the basic dimensions (#1 to #4). When the last Layer, the Task layer, is your work and "production layer".
As much as the idea of building an enormous 25mX7m wall and having to build and manage the company's plan can be something magical and extraordinary, it is ineffective. Today, there are quite a few tools that are excellent and high-quality planning platforms. Find the one convenient for you and your company/team to work with and run with it. The idea is to work on one platform for the whole company, incorporating the seven layers of planning. But the reality is that usually, those seven layers are on several different platforms. For example: managing the project on Monday.com; using the Google Calendar; managing and tracking tasks on Trello; managing sales on Pipedrive CRM; keeping company goals on internal Excel or PowerPoint, and executing inter-organizational communications by Slack. So, it's your responsibility to make sure that there is automatic integration between all the different tools you work with to avoid a "broken phone" between the different layers.
And it would be best if you never forgot that neither technology nor the most advanced practices make a difference, but the people. Determine the tools you want to use, set up the necessary integrations, and write the procedures and protocols required for proper, efficient and high-quality work. But first and foremost, you must teach and train the company's employees to use the organizational infrastructure you set up correctly. Otherwise, you will get the 'Tower of Babel'. Advanced technology and lousy communication.