One of the most challenge skills to master is long-term planning. This skill is needed for many different tasks at work, especially around project planning, budget planning, and (at a personal level) your career planning. Long-term planning is needed in order to get the most out of these exercises. In order to plan successfully, there are some pitfalls to avoid.
1. Don’t just plan for the next 3-6 months. Many people have difficulty planning beyond a few months out. That’s understandable but when determining strategies, 3 months goes by fairly quickly so you’ll need to think further out. What I do to help extend my long-term planning horizon is to think about what things will look like in one year from now. Picture yourself next year at this time and determine the details. What will your responsibilities be? How will the team or project be structured? What current tasks or assignment may you still be working on? This helps you if you are a lead/manager in planning feature sets and resource needs. And it helps you as an individual to plan your career growth (to determine new skills and responsibilities to acquire).
2. Don’t worry about being exact. Most of us like to be precise, but none of us can truly predict the future. So you need to settle for estimates. And sometimes these estimates are truly just guesses. If you are uncomfortable giving an estimate, add a number to describe your confidence level. The lower your confidence number, the more of a guess you made. If you expect to be exact, you will never extend the horizon of your planning skills.
3. Don’t assume you’ll remember your logic. Write everything down, especially your justifications or logic in deciding what you’ve planned out. In a year from now, are you going to remember why you wanted to take that training class or why you thought you’d spend X amount of money in the fourth quarter?
4. Don’t forget about your plan. If you’ve invested time in fiscal/project planning or career planning, don’t get so focused on the tactical work that you forget to revisit your plan to confirm you are on track. I see this a lot in career discussions where people forgot what they had put down the previous year. Don’t let that happen to you! You need to review your plan not only to remember what it was, but also to evaluate how well you estimated. Compared to the actual results, you may find out that you estimate too high, too low, or by some multiplier that you need to apply to your estimates for the next time.
I hope these ideas help you improve your overall long-term planning. It really is an exercise in predicting the future and the only way you get good at it is to keep trying. If you are struggling with this, you can always consider buying a crystal ball…in 12 months from now…plan for it now!