Plans don’t make anything happen

As we move into post-budget strategising, with the ambition of translating not-yet-developed strategies into hardly-yet-dreamt-of plans, it is worth reminding ourselves that planning (and, for that matter, strategising) doesn’t actually achieve anything.  We can describe, and plan for, the glorious world of March 2011, and the still more splendid world of 2015 and beyond – but we should not delude ourselves into thinking either that wishing will make it so, or that even in principle we could describe 2011 in ways which could be translated into a plan to take us from here to there.

Slow Leadership is on the case, with two linked posts here and here:

Conventional planning requires these assumptions:

  1. You can predict the future in fairly close detail, maybe several years ahead.
  2. It’s possible to impose your will on events, and therefore outcomes too, by sustained and disciplined action.
  3. Closely following a pre-defined set of actions is the best way to produce the result you want.
  4. You can deal with the unexpected by setting up measurements in advance to chart progress and trigger action to reassert control.

All of these assumptions are false.

‘Slow Planning’, by contrast, has rather different characteristics:

  1. Patiently develop understanding.
    1. Watch, reflect, consult and explore.
    2. Open your mind to many alternatives besides the obvious.
    3. Wait for recognizable patterns to emerge.
  2. Review as many possibilities as you can.
    1. Stay open to the unexpected.
    2. Avoid becoming committed prematurely.
    3. Challenge all assumptions and previous thinking.
    4. Watch for a preferred response to emerge from the best available thinking.
  3. Take swift, direct action.
    1. Keep decisions as close to events as possible.
    2. Act swiftly and decisively once you’ve chosen a course of action.
    3. Let go of failing actions quickly. Never waste your time trying to rescue something that is past help.
    4. Stay flexible, get as much feedback as possible and use the results to improve future understanding.

And the symptoms of conventional planning can be tested fairly easily.  The question of whether the following applies to anything in our universe is left as an exercise for the reader:

Managers often have much of their personal credibility invested in the plan, so it’s not surprising work often continues in defiance of reality, only to be finally abandoned when the inconsistencies become too great to paper over. You need only spend a short time inside most large organizations – and many smaller ones as well – to see how often projects are abandoned only after lengthy, wasteful and pigheaded efforts to deny a reality anyone unbiased could see long before.

That’s an easy snark, of course.  Much more interesting – and much more difficult – to identify and, dare I say it, plan for the implementation of what would need to be different.  What would that look like?