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3 steps for more agile planning in a changing world

Kinnari Desai Profile picture for user Kinnari Desai November 2, 2020
With agility 'the new currency of business,' finance teams that use modern, continuous, active planning will be better able to survive and thrive even in times of crisis, writes Workday's Kinnari Desai

Planning business strategy while holding puzzle pieces, creating ideas with light bulb drawn on paper and rearranging wooden blocks © Gajus - Shutterstock
(© Gajus - Shutterstock)

In such times of great uncertainty, surviving and thriving comes down to how promptly your business can identify disruptive changes and proactively respond to them.

Even before COVID-19, two-thirds of global CEOs dubbed "agility" as "the new currency of business," indicates a KPMG survey. Now, agility has emerged as the essential defining attribute of organizations that are able to respond to the economic challenges posed by the pandemic and chart a new, resilient course for the future. Put another way, organizations that operate with agility are better suited to get through this crisis and even thrive.

Begin with active planning

But the ability to be agile is not easy when your business is mired in static planning. Static planning is largely manual and mostly spreadsheet-based, so it doesn't lend itself to collaboration or version control. Such planning, budgeting, and forecasting worked well enough in a more predictable age. In today's complex, constantly changing business environment, static planning approaches are held back by their long planning cycles, immediately obsolete plans, siloed efforts, and hard-to-find errors.

Active planning is a more modern approach to planning. It is comprehensive, collaborative, and continuous. Comprehensive incorporates everything in the company — finance, sales, marketing, HR, R&D, and facilities so the company plans well for changing headcounts. The collaborative nature has become more pronounced in recent years as finance has been pushed to partner with the business more, and help set strategy. To do that, you've got to know about the business and be working with the same data. The continuous nature of active planning is being able to make decisions based on the latest information.

Laying the groundwork for business agility

There's a strong case for beginning the rollout of your active planning model in finance and focusing on low-hanging fruit to bring early and easy wins. These three milestones may help map your journey as you get started on active planning.

1. Assess the status quo

The starting point is to understand where you are so you know where to improve. Map the state of your company. Include assessments of business planning obstacles, whether that be people, processes, or technology, that hinder a more modern planning environment. To do the assessment, ask:

  • What are your current business planning processes?
  • What technology do you have, and how well is it serving you?
  • What data challenges need attention?
  • Are you able to make data-backed decisions--quickly?
  • Are there opportunities for automated data integration?
  • What do you lack in workforce planning? Is it connected to financial planning?

2. Get organizational alignment

To align key people with the business agility cause you are championing, you must:

  • Quantify the impact that the organization's status quo has on the company. What are manual processes and bottlenecks costing your business in time and money? What opportunities are passing you by?

  • Show the impact of change. What would those measurement strategies and KPI models look like if you implemented an active planning model? Unearth more nuanced ROI measures-for instance, how cutting budget time in half could give your people more time to run critical what-if scenarios-to really drive home the change that modern agility planning would bring.

  • Map out a plan for an initial project. Consider focusing your initial effort on a function within finance so you'll have control over the rollout.

  • Develop a multi-phased plan that communicates goals (both for implementing active planning and for this inaugural project), a concise and actionable plan, and the key metrics for your KPI model.

Being a change agent is no easy task, but it is increasingly being asked of CFOs, indicates a recent survey by Grant Thornton.

41% of finance leaders said in May that COVID-19 was causing them to spend as much as half their time serving as a 'change agent' who measures and manages processes and performance, the survey indicated. This was a six percentage-point uptick from a survey in February.

To become a change agent for active planning, recruit a savvy senior-level advocate to help champion the idea as worthy and necessary. Link in representatives from other departments, including operations, sales, and HR. Include IT to help navigate technology needs and coordinate data sources.

Communicate the why behind this initiative. That will help secure any executive buy-in you need for the how. As best-selling author and communications expert Nancy Duarte states in a recent Harvard Business Review article:

Answering why is an act of empathy and adds a layer of persuasion to your communications. When people know why they're being asked to do something, they're much more likely to do it.

3. Expand across the business

The best starting point is to find some early wins within finance. Once a rhythm and familiarity are in place, broaden your scope beyond finance. Initiate planning projects that engage HR, sales, or marketing. This is where you begin to extend the use and impact of active planning company-wide.

The key in this phase is to strengthen cross-departmental communication and collaboration. Don't just rely on technology or tools to do the heavy lifting. It will be easier to realize and maintain success with regular stakeholder one-on-ones. In these meetings, identify lessons learned and opportunities for more ingenuity and improvement. Communicate success and congratulations when warranted.

For example, Commerce Bank's 133 department leads perform forecasting and workforce planning that align with the bank's strategy and management processes. Talent managers, finance, HR, and budget managers collaborate and align by using a single cloud planning tool.

Planning for what's coming

Business agility is needed throughout an organization, and finance is in the ideal position to help deliver it. With an agile planning environment, companies will be better equipped to plan for what's coming, whatever that may be. As the pandemic has made clear, the only thing certain about the future is that it will reward business agility.

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