The Secret of Medium-Term Planning to Become More Productive

Get the Balance Right

Taking one day at a time has many advantages in getting things done. There is a danger though of thinking too short term. If you only think of the next day then, there is a good chance work will be missed, not tackled in the best way and not by the most appropriate person or team.

There is, also, a risk in looking too far ahead, as things can change, but there is a happy medium. From experience, we have found a quarter to be the best period for which to restrict your planning.

In a quarter there is time to consolidate ideas in the first couple of weeks, to break the back of the work across the next six, leaving two weeks for finalising and dealing with delivery. Keeping to a quarter is a good trade-off between flexibility and maintaining productivity, so, that you can change if you need to, but you aren’t changing course so often that nothing ever gets finished.

Now please don’t get me wrong, I am not expecting you to write ninety day-by-day plans for the next three months. The key to medium-term planning is the level of detail.

Your daily plan is detailed and includes practical step-by-step tasks that you need to compete, e.g. write 2500 words of your new book, send a marketing email, set up a Facebook advertisement.

The long-term goals are the general bigger picture ideas, e.g. increase client base by 20%, double your income, become a published author, etc.

The medium-term plan items, unsurprisingly, come in between these two extremes. Your medium-term plan should include the project titles or groups of tasks that you need to complete over the next period.

Daily: Write 2500 words. Create a Facebook advert. Create a function to calculate the best route.

Quarter: Complete the first draft of the book. Complete marketing plan execution. Add routing feature to the app.

Long-term: Become a published author. Increase client base by 20%. Expand into the logistics market.

Higher Level Plan

There are many of the same advantages to having a quarterly-based plan as there is for a daily plan. Thinking about the upcoming quarter, helps you to think about what is essential to achieve, and to filter the unnecessary. It gives you a checklist to keep track of progress, and a history which can be reviewed and used for future planning. It gives you a clear route from your daily tasks to your long-term goals.

Keeping the detail in the quarterly plan at a higher level than in your daily plan, allows you to remain agile. You can change direction if markets or requirements change, without wasting time on planning everything down to the last dotting of Is and crossing of Ts for a whole year.

You also need to be able to see your plan at a glance. We use SwiftCase Projects to build our medium-term goals, we then put in the detailed sub-tasks as we come to that job. We put any plans that are not for this quarter on-hold, so, they disappear from the workflow listings until they are ready to be worked on.

In tandem with our workflow management system, I still like to have an overview, on a whiteboard, that the team can see. Not only does this mean that the plan is always in view, but also the act of gradually crossing the tasks off the board during the quarter is a good feeling for the team. It also allows others to see that everyone is pulling their weight on the quarter’s goals when they walk up to cross their tasks off the board.

Having a hand-drawn plan may seem overkill alongside our management system, but it does help (or maybe it is just because I love whiteboards, ask my team!)

Don’t Overdo It

The temptation, as the period covered by a plan expands, is to throw everything and the kitchen sink into the mix. The idea is not to dump the entire contents of your brain onto the page if the plan overwhelms then it will lead to inactivity. There is a time to brainstorm for future ideas, that time is not at the quarterly planning stage. Keeping track on a wish list is fine, but don’t merely populate your plan with items from it.

Question each element in turn before it makes the cut.

Remember, do you need to do it, and do you need to do it now? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then don’t put it on your plan – simple.

Don’t let your idea generation outpace the possibility of implementation; you will only be asking for procrastination.

Think Smart

When it comes to the quarterly plan, you need to ensure that you are providing concrete steps and not abstract goals. It needs to be clear that a task is complete, and a wishy-washy goal won’t cut it.

This type of planning objective is a SMART target. The target should be:

Specific – detailed concrete step

Measurable – allow for the measure of progress

Attainable – don’t overcommit

Relevant – aligned with long-term goals

Time – finished within the quarter

Having a standard planning framework document can help you to be consistent with your planning. Your framework may be a paper document, a layout for your whiteboard, a spreadsheet, or a more specialised software application. Sticking to a planning process will help you to remain SMART. You could even include the SMART headings for each task you are planning. If you can’t answer all the points, then maybe think about defining the job so that you can.

Quarterly Review

In the same way that sometimes you want to complete your daily plan, there may be items that for one reason or another don’t get finished. As you move from the time-scale of a day to that of ninety days, this is more likely as there is more room for disruption.

These projects can be rolled over to the next quarter but be honest with yourself on the reasons for this. Was there a genuine reason, did you overcommit at the outset, or did something happen during the ninety days, or have you merely been lazy?

If you do have incomplete projects at the end of a quarter, don’t be afraid of reviewing their necessity. It could be that they are a massive time drain, and they aren’t that important, or maybe not concerning newer priorities. If they fit this description, then don’t hold back on cutting them or indeed putting them on hold for a later date.

If you did overcommit then be aware of this in future quarters. You should find that your estimates for a quarter are relatively reliable. You should be able to pre-empt obvious time threats, such as holidays and sickness.

If you have a team, then make sure they get their holidays booked into the calendar, well in advance of a new quarter’s plan. You can estimate sickness from the same period as the previous year. Watch out for one-off events, e.g. sporting events, especially local ones. Also, don’t forget national holidays.

As well as reviewing incomplete tasks after each quarter, you should also make a point of considering the whole task set. What went well? What could have been done better? Should it have been delegated to someone else? All these questions help to improve your planning for future quarters.

Filling your time

While it is important not to overcommit, it is hard to plan for the exact number of days at a ninety-day interval. You may also have heard of Parkinson’s law, which states, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. You can use carrot and stick methods to ensure that the work is on time and doesn’t merely fill the quarter for the sake of it.

You can also include some interesting, ambitious tasks. That your team can tackle if the rest of the work is complete. If the tasks are thought-provoking, e.g. trying some new cutting-edge tech, new recipes for milkshakes, etc., then you or your team will want to do them. They will strive to finish to get to these jobs. These should not only be jobs from the next quarter that you may or may not get to, but that will also just be rolled over. They could be something a bit left-field, something that someone passionate can get their teeth into.

So, now you have a plan for your quarter, with SMART targets, that are prioritised by importance. Now implement the plan, and work towards your long-term goals.

SwiftCase helps thriving businesses, swamped by growing demand, automate and organise, to focus on what matters — loved by 1000s of users across Insurance, Finance, Legal, Service & Contractor sectors.

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Adam Sykes

I help thriving businesses, swamped by growing demand, automate & organise, to focus on what matters. Every successful business has a unique selling proposition - the product or service that sets them apart, but every company also has backend operations that take resources away from the core direction. I help businesses to automate routine tasks, freeing them to focus on what matters. I am the co-founder of SwiftCase, B2B software that helps businesses to automate, connect and enhance their business processes. We specialise with companies in the insurance, legal and financial sector. My specialities include intelligent automation, data security, workflow design, system integration, and online customer engagement. If you would like to become a client, or you like the opportunity to work with me, then please get in touch as I'll be delighted to talk to you.