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Overcoming Four Planning Failures

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shutterstock 131767742For many people, planning seems like a waste of effort. Why plan when we could be doing something to make real money, right now? Why plan if things are going to change anyway?

Doing planning right is a significant investment in time, energy, people, and money. Even if the only monetary costs are the salaries of those involved in the planning, this is often still a significant cost – since folks involved in planning are often paid at the higher end of the scale. It is essential, then, that planning has a real return on investment - otherwise it truly is a waste of time. 

Critics of planning challenge me with four real problems:

  1. “If we plan, and something changes, how will we adjust?”
  2. “Planning takes place in an ivory tower – these decisions get made but they never asked us what it would actually take to get it done.”
  3. “I don’t have time to plan – I’m too busy!”
  4. “We’ve done ‘strategic planning’ over and over, and it doesn’t make any difference!”

These critics are usually correct about how planning has worked in their organizations – and illustrate four major reasons that plans fail. We’re going to highlight those four, and point toward ways leaders can overcome those four major planning failures. Note that these four are often interconnected in complex ways.

Failure #1: Rigidity

“If we plan, and something changes, how will we adjust?”

Rigidity is a common cause of planning failure. While planning always looks ahead, rigidity tries to set things in stone beyond the horizon. Planning becomes too detailed too far out. Rigidity also does not take changing conditions into consideration. This leads to project failure – either through not being able to be completed, or through irrelevance.

There are three methods we often use to counteract rigidity.

  1. Map out scenarios. These don’t have to be overly complex, but map out 2 – 3 scenarios that could happen because of (or in spite of) the efforts put forth. When one of them occurs, follow the plans you made for that scenario, and adjust accordingly.
  2. Create milestones. These interim markers help keep track of progress. It is very possible that parts of the project will fail; other parts will succeed. Without milestones, we often write off the whole project as a failure, and think we have to start over. That’s usually not the case. It helps to test assumptions and results at certain milestones to make sure things are still on track.
  3. Create triggers. Consider internal and external factors that would cause the project to need to change. Put these triggers in the plan, so that leaders can watch for them, and adjust accordingly.

Failure #2: Operational Disconnect

“Planning takes place in an ivory tower – it doesn’t connect with reality.”

Planning that does not gather the right information and the right input will create plans with disconnection from operational reality. This will tend to cause them to fail – and often harm morale in those tasked with implementing the changes.

There are three methods we use to re-connect planning and operations:

  1. Seek open-ended stakeholder input. Open-ended input allows for leaders to discover what they do not know. None of us can see the whole picture – even if we are at the top of the organization. Open-ended input creates space for people to be heard.
  2. Take stakeholder input seriously. Once stakeholder input is captured, compare it to assumptions. Probe for areas that don’t line up well.
  3. Follow up with stakeholders. Yes, it’s easy to say, “we listened to your input and integrated it into our solutions.” But people want to know they were heard. In your follow-up with stakeholders, find ways of naming, specifically, things they contributed to – even if it was just to send leaders down a completely different direction from the suggestions of stakeholders.

Failure #3: Right thing, wrong time

“I don’t have time to plan – I’m too busy!”

“Too busy” is real. While this often is a strong marker for needing to step back and plan, the reality is that people in this space often need to stabilize before they take on planning. Planning when there is no margin creates scattered plans that don’t have a strong chance of coming to fruition.

There are three methods we often use to create margin for good planning.

  1. Name the busy-ness. Take 15 minutes, an hour – not long – and name what is making everything feel so busy. Maybe it’s an overwhelming to-do list. Maybe it’s an overflowing e-mail inbox. It’s something, and it’s creating anxiety on top of the actual work itself.
  2. Chunk the problem. Find what things go together and group them. Make at most 7 big groupings.
  3. Determine what needs to come first. Once we can do that, we often find that planning is more important than some of the things on the list. Delegation or deletion of lower-priority items can follow, which creates margin.

Failure #4: Implementation Failure

“We’ve done ‘strategic planning’ over and over, and it doesn’t make any difference!”

How many times have I heard this! The problem with much that goes by the name of strategic planning is that it does not address the habits and mindsets that hold organizational culture together. When those habits and mindsets remain the same, the organization will fail to implement its plans, no matter how thorough. In other cases, the plans never move from thinking to actually doing something.

There are many methods we use to help strategic plans get to implementation, and here are three:

  1. Design the process. Make sure that the planning and the results of the planning are part of an integrated whole with expectations on purpose, people, outcomes, timeframes, methods, and resources.
  2. Test for reasonableness. Using resources (people, time, space, and money) as a measuring tool, determine whether your organization can actually get where it wants to go with the resources it has defined.
  3. Make assignments clear and accountable. Make sure everyone knows what is expected of them, and under what circumstances. Hold people to those things and leave nothing unassigned – even if those things change later.

How have your plans tended to work? Which methods do you think you need to apply?

Curious about how this might work in your organization? Drop a comment in the form below or drop me a note. I’d be glad to discuss!



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Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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