I like to think that I have learned a lot in managing business teams for nearly 15 years. One area where it is particularly evident – at least to me – that I have grown is in the area of collaborative planning.
When I first became CEO of a company in 1997, I largely kept my thoughts to myself as they were forming, bringing my team in near the end of the process when most of the big decisions had been made.
Even as a I started creating my own companies, I tended to follow a similar pattern. I would toil in silence working through my ideas and then present them to the group as a polished course of action.
My behavior stemmed not from a lack of trust or a hierarchical view of my companies. Indeed, I often would ask questions and solicit ideas in both group and 1-on-1 conversations. But I didn’t provide context or insight into how the answers mattered.
There were several reasons that I took this approach in the past. Some were conscious while others I recognize only now as I look back. First and foremost, I felt that as the leader of the company it was my job to provide a clear vision and direction for the business. I believed that my employees looked to me to have the answers and expected a sense of certainty about direction. For me to express doubts or to admit that I didn’t know would surely be a sign of weakness that would concern the staff, I thought.
My thinking has evolved over the years and my approach now reflects it. As I work with my colleagues at CustomScoop to plot our path for the future, we’re doing so collaboratively. Yes, at the end of the day I’ll have to make some tough calls, but not without everyone being part of the process.
Here’s what I believe I gain from the collaborative planning approach:
- A diverse team contributes insights I might not have alone. The more they know about what we’re trying to figure out, the more likely they are to provide good ideas and feedback. By engaging early on, there’s more room to incorporate these data points into the final plan.
- A deliberative process actually provides greater certainty. By putting together plans in silence in the past, I now realize I actually introduced a great deal of uncertainty for my teams. Because they didn’t know what I was working on, it allowed their imaginations to run wild or exhibit a sense of apathy because of a perceived lack of control over their own destiny.
- An empowered group makes a bigger difference. Particularly in smaller companies and teams, it is important for individuals to feel like they really matter. Not that they just hear words that many leaders spout about caring what people have to say, but actually seeing through action that their ideas and feedback are carefully considered and incorporated where appropriate.
- Employee engagement throughout the planning process makes changes more digestible. Large scale planning projects inevitably result in change. By taking part in the process from a very early stage, the team can see the changes coming from further out so they have time to adjust and it doesn’t come as a jarring shock. More important, it gives them an actual voice in the changes that need to be made.
There are, no doubt, many other benefits to collaborative business planning. Of course, there are some downsides, too. It does lengthen the planning process to engage more people. And ultimately there will be some hurt feelings in the end as not every idea or piece of feedback can appear in the final document. But some of those risks exist anyway, and I have come to believe that the benefit of an engaged process outweighs the downside risk.
At the end of the day, business planning still must follow the Harry S Truman model of the buck stopping with the leader. Business, after all, is not a democracy. But there’s plenty of room for healthy debate and input that improves the final plan of action.