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.