What Does Planning Look Like in a Scalable Business?
Tom Stimson
September 15, 2023
Small wooden blocks spell out the words “Project Management” in two rows on a wooden table top.

After the Sales Sphere sells a job, it goes to the Planning Group, which determines the best way to organize the job and places the necessary orders.

While Planning is separate from Sales, they overlap. Sometimes in the selling process, you need to ask the Planning Group the best way to sell a job or the right way to frame a job that works with all the other jobs you have going on.

This is different from having a permanent planning resource in the sales group. Just as the Sales Sphere needs a production manager because they use that kind of knowledge in almost every job, some jobs overlap in the planning process.

In other words, Planning and Sales need to collaborate.

So — with the assumption that Sales and Planning are going to collaborate — after you’ve sold a project, it goes to Planning.

I often deal with people who want a black-and-white answer to everything. When they’re done selling something, they think they should be able to hand it off to Planning (or operations) and wash their hands.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no such thing as a handoff. There’s work that Planning needs to do on the project that sales is still in charge of.

Remember the merging soap bubbles from the last blog? The metaphor applies here as well.

Scalable Planning vs. Non-Scalable Planning

The difference between the old version and the new version of Planning is that the old version requires a project manager (PM) to carry an order through the system. The PM makes sure a particular order gets all the time, attention, and resources it needs. This means you need a dedicated planner for every job.

The scalable version of planning is centralized planning, which treats all jobs equally and plans them the same way each time, so a project lead can take over and go out into the field and execute. Scalability means you’re eliminating as many redundancies as you can in the planning process.

Project managers, by definition, are redundant. The earlier in the process a project manager becomes involved, the more redundant the processes become, and the more project managers you need. This is unscalable.

The extreme version of scalable planning is to outsource all project managers on a job-by-job basis. While that may work for a few businesses, it’s probably not where your business needs to be to balance itself.

You need to find your balance. Scalability isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Infographic: ISL - 9/18/23

Scalable Planning Outputs

The finished product of Planning is the step-by-step plan that other people — specifically the project manager — can execute. The PM is the customer of Planning.

So, what can you do to reduce the number of tasks a project manager needs to accomplish so they can come in late in the process?

Planning should be centralized. Inventory, planning, sub-rentals, labor, purchasing, travel, and drawings — all of them are tasks that can be accomplished in a central location by people who can do them much more efficiently and consistently.

This is far more productive than having multiple project managers who need to understand and carry out all these processes themselves.

The Big Objection

The objection to scalable planning I hear most often is, “I don’t think my people can do this.” That may be true. There’s a non-zero chance your people can’t do this.

However, the first step in overcoming this roadblock is to retool your processes so that your people can try to do them. Your people can probably achieve more of a scalable process than the one you have now because they’re required to know less in a centralized planning process.

This way, your people only have to utilize their highest and best skills. In a scalable planning process, no one person has to know how to do everything. You have a team of people who are all working toward the same goal.

This model’s big distinguishing characteristic is that planning goes on all the time. Even when you’re busy and you’ve got lots of shows going on, the Planning Group is still intact and planning future events. They’re not out on the job site running crews or switching video.

You might have some people on your team who don’t want to only have one role; some people like to have hybrid roles. Sometimes they’re working on planning, sometimes they’re out doing a show, etc. You’re going to have to deal with that objection.

However, you probably have other people who would be happy to just do the thing they’re best at, which is to do shows all the time or to do planning all the time.

What you should value in a PM is their ability to handle a job site. To do that, the PMs need a plan — the output of Planning. A PM with a plan is called a Show Lead.

The Show Book

Planning gives the Show Lead (SL) what many people call the Show Book. The Show Book includes drawings, agendas, equipment lists, outsourced materials and people, the travel plan, and the trucking plan.

The Show Book has everything the SL needs to know and will need to communicate to their team to effectively execute the show.

The only things not in a show book are the things the SLs don’t find out until they arrive on site. This is the fun of our business. You make a great battle plan and take it to the field to execute it. The problem is, everyone has a battle plan until the first shot is fired.

That’s what show business is — you make a plan so you can change it when you get to the venue. An SL has a plan they can change to address the realities of whatever they walk into.

With no plan in hand on arrival at the site, an SL is just figuring it all out while the team waits on direction.

That’s the irony of our world. Ain’t it grand?

Quote: ISL - 9/18/23


Finding an ideal old-school PM was like finding a unicorn. In the traditional model, the PM had to do drawings, outsource, write purchase orders (which they hate to do), and manage expenses. So many skills are involved in all this planning that it’s now impossible to find a PM who’s good at all of them.

In the non-scalable model, you had to have multiple PMs, and they all had to be experts at drawing, and they all had to know where to find freelancers. They all had to know how to sub-rent equipment, and they all had to write purchase orders. It was insane.

In the scalable model, the thing you value in what’s now called a Show Lead is their ability to manage a job site. You’re not asking PMs to manage a process. You’re asking SLs to be the process.

Your company should be able to plan every job without having to put an independent planner on each to walk it through your system. Your system should walk the order through the system.

Project management is an indication that your processes have failed. Your need for project management means you lack the processes to get a job done. It’s a Band-Aid for missing processes.

Planning’s job is focused on the future. Execution’s job is focused on the now. When Planning gets sucked into the now, it means Planning has failed. You never run out of the future, but you don’t need everyone working on the now.

That’s what scalable planning looks like.

About Tom Stimson
Tom Stimson MBA, CTS is an authority on business and strategy for small- to medium-sized companies. He is an expert on project-based selling and a thought leader for innovative business processes.
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