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What are basic planning skills?

by Dan Power

In 1986, I co-authored an introductory planning and strategy skills book with Professors Martin Gannon, Mike McGinnis and David Schweiger. One of the broad issues we addressed in the first chapter was basic planning skills. A review of the literature and practice supports the conclusion that effective planners must master many skills. The following list of seven major skills and the accompanying discussion is an update and generalization of materials from Power et al. (1986). Planners need to develop skills related to the following seven competency areas:

  1. Analyzing and interpreting data and situations
  2. Diagnosing problems and identifying relevant causal factors
  3. Predicting and forecasting
  4. Goal setting and identifying possible courses of action
  5. Evaluating and comparing possible courses of action
  6. Communicating
  7. Implementing actions and monitoring them.

People are constantly bombarded with a variety of data about situations that they must analyze, interpret, and assess. In these data rich situations we must use basic cognitive, intuitive and judgmental skills to sort out what the data means. We analyze, interpret, and assess the data. Analyzing means separating the situation into parts and examining the parts to better understand what is occurring. Interpreting means explaining and providing your own view of the situation. Assessing means estimating the value or worth of elements of the situation. In applying these basic skills, we sort data into categories and we identify consistent and plausible interpretations of the available data. These data are often about important events, so the analysis must be as rigorous and complete as possible, and the interpretation must be systematic and cautious. Assessments and interpretations of data indicate its importance, plausibility, and worth or value. Plausible explanations of the data should be discarded only when there is a sufficient amount of evidence to clearly rule them out. The key problem facing people is that data is often incomplete, conflicting, and extraneous. So we must exercise care and identify missing, erroneous, or extraneous data. We all need to develop skills to assist in:

  • Coping with partial information
  • Recognizing and assessing contradictory data
  • Identifying unreliable data
  • Making realistic assumptions
  • Developing complicated reasoning chains supported by assumptions and evidence
  • Using intuition to reach defensible assessments and interpretations.

    Futhermore, some people must diagnose problems affecting not only themselves but a group or an entire organization. Diagnosing is the process of determining the cause and nature of problems. Usually we will need to draw inferences and make judgments to reach a diagnosis. Inferring means reaching conclusions based upon what is known and assumed. Judging, a skill that people use often, is the process of forming opinions and estimates relevant to a situation or problem. As a skilled diagnostician, a person needs an understanding of the entire situation, and the relationships among elements in the situation. A person needs to be especially skilled at the following:

  • Using incomplete and conflicting information
  • Separating symptoms and causes from problems
  • Collecting relevant diagnostic information.

    But people must do much more than analyze, interpret, and diagnose. Another important skill is forecasting and predicting the future. This skill involves determining what one believes is likely to happen in the future. Sometimes models of the past or present are useful aids in forecasting. In other situations, quantitative models introduce false confidence and exaggerate errors and discontinuities about anticipated events that are occurring over time. The predictors or variables used by people to help them anticipate the future can change rapidly as events unfold, thus requiring an adjustments of plans. Skilled planners develop an adequate and appropriate understanding of causes and consequences to help them anticipate events and adjust planned actions over time. Hence people must be skilled at:

  • Considering and assessing multiple possible futures
  • Making use of diverse types of data from many sources
  • Considering contingencies and uncontrollable factors
  • Assessing the likelihood of events.

    Naturally, two basic skills that planners must possess are identifying possible courses of action and goal-setting. Planning is the process of designing a consistent integrated program of actions that when carried out will accomplish specific goals. Goal-setting is the process of identifying desired accomplishments and targets. Planners should be especially skilled at identifying long-range strategic actions. A planner should be able to construct plans that achieve long-run goals without consuming excessive resources or violating constraints. If long-run goals of the business are in conflict, then planners must be able to establish priorities. Skilled strategic thinkers are flexible and opportunistic in situations that are not fully known or that change with time. They can work with predictions and develop plans that are responsive to the uncertainty and contingencies associated with them. A skilled planners can cope with the following key problems:

  • Assessing the likely consequences for alternative courses of action
  • Sorting out irrelevant issues, and focusing only on the most relevant
  • Resolving goal conflicts and prioritizing goals
  • Preparing for possible contingencies
  • Coordinating the actions and actors in a plan.

    Planners must be skilled at evaluating and comparing possible courses of action. In a planning situation, alternative plans or courses of actions need to be evaluated against normative criteria to ensure their "goodness". The major normative criteria that must be met by a planned course of action include acceptability, adequacy, completeness, distinguishability, feasibility, suitability and variety. When one compares alternative plans to accomplish the same mission and long-term objectives a list of specific criteria related to effectiveness and efficiency need to be developed. The specific criteria should then be used to make comparisons among the alternatives. Planners must assess measures like the following for each alternative planned course of action:

  • What is the anticipated percent accomplishment of specific identified objectives?
  • What is the total use of resources?
  • What is the impact on human resources, e.g., number of staff needed?
  • What is the likely occurrence of unintended desirable effects, e.g., few vs. many side effects?
  • What is the likely occurrence of unintended UNDESIRABLE effects and what is the magnitude of the side effects?

    Planners must also work and communicate with a wide array of individuals with various backgrounds. In order to be an effective planner, one must possess well-developed communication, interpersonal and team skills. Effective communication includes both the ability to influence and inform others and the openness to be influenced and informed by others. Effective planners, then, have communications-receiving skills such as listening openly to new ideas, and effective communication-sending skills such as speaking persuasively.

    Finally, planners must be skilled at implementing and monitoring plans. Once a plan has been communicated to those who will execute it, planners must carry out their assigned tasks in executing the plan and assist those people who need help. Also, planners must interpret signals and feedback from others who are executing the plan. Effectively implementing and monitoring a plan that has been skillfully crafted can greatly increase the likelihood of its success.


    Power, D. J., Gannon, M., McGinnis, M. and Schweiger, D., Strategic Management Skills, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1986, ISBN: 0201139782.

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    Copyright © 2004-12 by D. J. Power (see his home page). PlanningSkills.COMsm is maintained by Alexander P. and Daniel J. Power. Please contact them at with questions. See disclaimer and privacy statement. This page was last modified on Monday, July 30, 2012.