Ethan is the CEO of Integral, an award-winning employee activation agency. He's a lecturer at Columbia and Trustee of the Institute for PR.
getty More than a decade ago, a friend encouraged me to review the projects in the department I led through the lens of horizon planning. Essentially, you chart all the work (and its impact) across short-, medium- and long-term time horizons. You can then assess your 'portfolio' of projects and figure out if you have the right blend for your business, your team's capacity and your personal ambition. In a sense, you can think about this as capacity planning. Since then, I've worked with clients to bring this strategic planning to their work. In our client work and within Integral, we'll assess how various teams and individuals are exposed to innovation and interdependence risks. It's important to work together so that people know what they can achieve with great certainty. Here's a quick introduction to the three horizons we use.
In the first horizon, areas of work, projects or programs are indisputably within your team's scope. The processes, job roles and responsibilities are mature, and KPIs tend to be efficiency-based. Costs and funding are predictable. The foundation horizon comprises your team's 'bread and butter.' Horizon Two: Grow
In the next horizon, the areas of work, projects or programs may have heavy dependencies on partnerships or inputs from outside of your team. There may even be some dispute about ownership. Processes, job roles and responsibilities may be emergent. The KPIs for this horizon tend to represent the development and adoption of best practices and new skills or capabilities. Costs and funding can vary year-to-year based on investment in new technologies, skill acquisition and process change. In the third horizon, areas of work, projects or programs are experimental and limited in scope. Working teams may be multi-disciplinary or multi-departmental, and there is no formalization of job roles or responsibilities. The KPIs in this horizon prioritize learning and enriching the team over traditional business outcomes. Funding is minimal or bootstrapped. Why Balancing A Portfolio Requires People Insights
It is the rare leader who thinks this way naturally. Yet, the opportunities and new demands of a business rarely result in a balanced portfolio. It doesn't take that much work to get going with horizon planning, but the payoffs can be big. For example, in one case, I facilitated four managers within a client team to list the 10 things they manage—channels, programs, production, business processes, etc. Not eight things, not 87 things: 10 things. And then, we inspected each one together and assigned it a horizon.
It was eye-opening to see how the managers' personalities and the perceptions of the organization resulted in an uneven blend—some were over-exposed to the horizon-three risk, and others were stuck in with 100% horizon-one tasks—'drudgery,' as they described it.
Moreover, a recent study my company conducted with the Harris Poll found a significant difference in how managers and non-managers perceived the organization. With 93% of managers vs. 80% of non-managers saying that they have a clear sense of their organization's values, it's important to ensure alignment across the team in a more holistic manner.
As you engage in horizon planning, it's really helpful to be upfront with your team about why you're doing it. And in order to be clear, you need to have this well thought out for yourself first. Start by asking yourself (and your team) whether the work on the broader team is well organized, if new projects and tasks get assigned efficiently, if anyone on the team is at risk of burnout and if resources to get work done are appropriately distributed. On almost any team, there will be room for improvement. Rather than devolving into grousing and complaint, here's the opportunity for a collaborative management team to do some load-balancing, which has the additional merit of building in a smart level of redundancy and ensuring the broader team has a crack at staying competitive and engaged as individual professionals.
With all the cards on the table, take a look at where funding, people resources and executive time are being spent. Then, you can ensure that all team members have some exposure across the portfolio. Not only is this good for keeping people engaged and motivated, but it can also decrease overall risk within any team.
Strategic Planning: Balancing Uncertainty And Timelines
Paraschos Pentas wrote, "planning is one of the most complex tasks in management and has an inherent uncertainty, as it is related to the future.' It's essential to take a closer look to identify which project tasks require other tasks to move forward before they can be started (aka 'a dependency'). Increasingly, knowledge work is being run like a project. This requires that more people incorporate project management into their daily work. Further, this also means that they need to use professional judgment and fewer textbook answers.
As stated clearly by Pabini Gabriel-Petit, 'People with different backgrounds bring different perspectives to a collaboration, and their diverse inputs help a team to see things in new ways—and sometimes come up with innovative concepts. But those different perspectives can sometimes be a source of conflict.'
Getting your team on the same page using the horizon portfolio exercise to agree on short-, medium- and long-term time horizons is one way to bring your team together. Coming to one understanding of the KPIs is another benefit of this process, because it's not just the numbers in the rearview mirror. Done properly, KPIs are integral in forecasting changes and shifts (registration required). Additionally, the horizon portfolio work can help teams and individuals understand who the key stakeholders are and how they can be used to move strategic priorities forward.
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