Effective planning builds the bridge to your vision.

If you listen to the hype that rises from entrepreneurial hubs around the world, you might start to believe that planning is past it’s used by date. Who needs to plan when instead you can hold an ideation session, throw down a hackathon, pivot at the first sign of turbulence and worst case scenario, fail fast and do something else? The problem with clichés is not so much that they’re cheesy or tired; it’s more that when they’re put into the wrong hands they can be mistaken for sensible paradigms. The nuance is lost, the context is overlooked and a fad is born.

“If you find yourself resisting being strategic, because it sounds like a fast track to irrelevance, or vaguely like an excuse to slack off, you’re not alone. Every leader’s temptation is to deal with what’s directly in front, because it always seems more urgent and concrete. Unfortunately, if you do that, you put your company at risk. While you concentrate on steering around potholes, you’ll miss windfall opportunities, not to mention any signals that the road you’re on is leading off a cliff.”

~ Paul Schoemaker, 6 Habits of True Strategic Thinkers, Inc Magazine: http://tinyurl.com/7adsp9e

Granted, times have changed and SWOT analyses conducted between rounds of golf at the country club have lost their edge as a valuable business tool. But, as the saying goes, it is a fool who by trying to rid themselves of a bad thing succeeds in destroying whatever good there was as well. The necessity for and benefits of effective planning remain largely intact and to dismiss it as obsolete is foolish.

What is the opposite of planning? It is not agile or lean. It is the absence of planning. So it is anything other than planning. Which includes winging it, magical or fantastical thinking, knee jerk reactions, praying, hope, gambling, following a whim and impulsiveness. Presented this way, few would argue that these represent a better alternative to envisioning the desired future, translating this into a set of broad goals/objectives and defining the resources and sequence of steps needed to achieve them. Of course there are some who will continue to argue that they have a better alternative and will cite outliers to justify their position. But in general, the world has not changed that much such that the entire discipline of planning has suddenly become defunct.

It is far more important to confront the resistance to planning than it is to attack the concept. Obviously there are better and worse ways to conduct planning but this is not the point. There needs to be a sufficient level of engagement and faith in even doing any form of planning before there will be a healthy enough space to figure out the best approach. Naysayers are often opposed to planning for reasons that have more to do with them personally than a rational, business-based justification. Don’t believe it? Try probing them and see how quickly they try to change the conversation, act with hostility or play the authority card.

Effective planning closes the accountability gaps and drives visibility. It exposes laziness, weakness and sloppiness. And it thwarts rebellion and political maneuvering. These alone should be sufficient reason to invest at least part of the day in collaborative and intelligent strategic thinking and planning. Let alone the more positive benefits.

Rather than think of planning in terms of the plan itself, think of it in terms of what it makes possible. Successful planning builds the bridge across the chasm of uncertainty to the organization’s vision. A plan is just a brick in the bridge; it is not the bridge itself and the bridge will never be complete until you reach the destination, at which point new bridges will need to be built. Plans come and go, their utility is often constrained to a point in time and they may need to evolve, be thrown away or even reversed as the bridge starts to take shape. The planning mindset is the constant that should remain at all times. Even when…especially when…it is time to put plans into action. Doing is not the opposite of planning either; the two must coexist like two sides of the same coin.

Take agile software development which is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and the frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans. The goal is to enable development teams to move quickly and easily so they can deliver working software that customers really want. Such a goal wouldn’t be feasible without planning. Agile doesn’t eliminate planning; it accelerates it and makes it more responsive. The planning and the doing are compressed into a sprint where the results can be measured almost in real time and the mindset is constantly tuned into what’s next.

Imagine what would be possible for your organization if everyone thought this way.



Don’t waste time doing things that don’t need to be done.

Imagine for a moment that this was a mantra your organization lived by. What would be possible? How much money would you save? If you spent less time doing things that don’t add value, how much more time could you spend on things that do? Would it be less frustrating or less painful? More productive? More profitable?

What’s stopping you? It’s hardly a new idea. At least someone during your career has probably said something similar to you before. Perhaps you’ve thought about it for a while only to conclude that it’s a nice idea but not something that can compete with the tidal waves of demands that dictate the day-day reality of your working life.

Why is it that good ideas, often-simple concepts based on common sense, don’t become common practice? Why is there such a disconnect? Is it really that difficult to lead a business based on simple but powerful principles that really do work and instead to choose dysfunctional paths that don’t? Evidently it is; we only need look at many of the workplaces we’ve experienced to know how difficult it is. But what still remains unanswered is why it is so difficult to stop doing things that don’t need to be done or which don’t work? Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that failure awaits.

One reason may be a lack of honest introspection. Like those moments when you suspect that someone may be listening to what you’re saying but you know they aren’t hearing you. The person may understand a principle and even go so far as to agree with it, while ironically acting in ways that demonstrate the opposite. The insight alone does not compel action or change in the person’s behavior. It’s as though the insight itself and the actions required to turn an insight into a way of operating exist in completely different levels of consciousness. Perhaps they do.

The lack of consciousness can be problematic for individuals but it can be disastrous for organizations. With individuals, it’s possible to isolate negative phenomena so they can be quarantined but once they enters the veins of the organization’s culture, they can spread exponentially like a virus, infecting everyone they touch. Take the mantra posed in the title of this blog; some organizations may fail to adopt it because it’s become a cultural norm to do just the opposite. Employees come to expect that large portions of their working life will be spent doing things that don’t need to be done, because that’s just the way the organization is. To challenge it is too exhausting, ‘above their pay grade’, or perceived as futile and apathy takes hold. And unintentionally something unacceptable becomes acceptable.

Some cognitive psychologists argue that thoughts shape emotions and feelings, which in turn shape behaviors. Translate that paradigm into an organizational setting: a guiding principle could shape how people feel about their workplace and their value as employees which in turn could shape what they do and how they respond at work. If a CEO makes it an intention, with conviction, to focus the organization’s time only on what needs to be done it could lead to a very different workplace and set of results than that of an organization whose CEO doesn’t.

Strategic plans may take on a different level of critical thinking and analysis. There may be less priorities and initiatives to focus on. Meetings might become more structured and objectives driven…and less frequent! Static reports might be replaced by more dynamic business intelligence. Projects may be run using more agile methodologies. Productivity and efficiency may acquire more currency than seniority and titles. In short, everything could change because of an idea whose time has come.

“One idea lights a thousand candles.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Change starts with good ideas. Change withers when good ideas fail to become conscious. It is a leader’s job to make the organization’s unconscious conscious so that good ideas can survive and take root and to break the patterns that prevent this from being possible.