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Planning, whether for long-term strategy or just the coming year, tends to suffer from a Moses complex even though we have learned that having the team at the top come down with tablets from on high rarely works. It takes broader involvement than that.

That’s why I am intrigued by the “W Framework” developed by consultants Lenny Rachitsky and Nels Gilbreth in their work at Eventbrite and Airbnb. It blends together, in a logical manner, ideas from the top but also from the relevant teams in the organization, hopefully for a more realistic plan that still maintains a strategic focus.

“Planning is hard because it's inherently different from other exercises your organization takes on. Rather than focusing on day-to-day execution, it requires a large number of people to think about a variety of possible futures, align on one single future, and then plot a concrete course to get there,” they write on First Round Review.

The framework deals with what they found to be the root cause of nearly all bad planning processes: A basic lack of understanding of roles – who is responsible for what and when. Organizations struggle with who should have a say in the plan and when, as well as what does each stakeholder need to deliver and to whom? “These questions are too often left unanswered, which leads to chaos and disappointment during the planning process,” they note.

In their framework, they cleverly divide the work between the leadership group atop the company or business unit and the people executing the actual work, such as the marketing team or the smaller task teams overseeing each product. Work will zigzag between leaders and doers, going up and down the organizational hierarchy, as if along the sides of the letter W, which is how the framework was named. The four steps:

Leadership provides context: Good planning requires top-down guidance. Teams need to know what needs to be accomplished over the life of the plan. “Leadership shouldn’t be too concerned with making the plan too polished at this stage. Planning isn’t a time to demonstrate that leadership has all the answers. It’s a time to share what they know and invite others to help fill in the gaps. Leadership needs everyone’s help to complete it,” they add. Once the strategic plan has some basic form, the leadership needs to identify individuals from the teams who will own each part of the plan rather than throwing it out willy-nilly.

Teams respond with a proposed plan: The context now evolves into specific plans for the various initiatives the leadership team foresees. But the consultants stress that at any point in the process – and particularly at this stage – everything the leadership has suggested is up for debate. If teams see major flaws in the plan or have a better approach, this is the time to highlight that. A common pitfall at this stage, they advise, is for everyone to work independently too long without checking in with other teams or the leadership. That can result in a plan that’s off the mark. Another failure can be accepting the direction from the leadership team as written in stone. “The whole point of this step is for teams to share their unique point of views, based on their experience on the ground,” they note.

Leadership shares an integrated plan: The leadership takes all the individual plan and assembles an overall framework. They develop priorities, allocate resources, and tie everything together into a cohesive company strategy. Common pitfalls are not being aggressive enough, trying to do too much and being vague about the hard decisions that need to be made.

Teams confirm their buy-in: If you didn’t expect this step, neither did I. The consultants say it’s often taken for granted or skipped entirely. Sharing the integrated plans with team leaders needs to be done thoughtfully and carefully, given how much effort went into the second stage and how some things will have been changed or jettisoned. The leadership also needs to be sure nothing vital has been missed.

The W Framework gives some logic to what can be a chaotic process. It also separates the right-brain steps of crafting strategy from some of the left-brain, analytical efforts that follow. Failing to separate those right-brain and left-brain activities hinders strategic planning, McGill professor Henry Mintzberg has noted. The process merits some consideration if your planning process is clunky or ineffectual. It clarifies responsibilities and encourages collaboration rather than conflict.


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