Crystal ball, anyone?
I am a big fan of Seth Godin’s cut-through-the-crap style and, therefore, an avid reader of his blog. Additionally, as someone who often questions why anyone would cling onto a five-year plan like it’s the gospel, I was delighted to read the following:
“There’s nothing wrong with having a plan. Plans are great. But missions are better. Missions survive when plans fail, and plans almost always fail.”
So, why do plans fail? Here’s my take on this:
1. Like the title of this post suggests, most of us don’t have crystal balls!
- Change is a given and it’s constant.
- Technological change, especially, is exponential and its impact is difficult to predict even if you’re immersed in it - see this Raymond Kurzweil TED Talk for more on that. Would you have predicted five years ago that people would be swiping credit card payments on phones?
- Even ‘experts’ fail to notice the signs of imminent catastrophe - the financial crisis being a good example of this. In fact, on that note, I recently read that economics is the only subject with no interest in history, or something to that effect!
2. People are often not very good at planning.
- Crystal balls aside, we humans are fallible creatures even with good information to hand. We’re prone to ‘optimism bias’ whereby we underestimate time and cost and overestimate benefits and revenues.
- Not only that, if there’s no ‘net of accountability’ to track progress against objectives, there’s no carrot or stick to increase the discipline in the planning process.
So, anyone attempting to plan in minute detail more than a few months into the future is just guessing.
In light of this, how should you go about planning? Again, here are my tips:
1. Like Seth suggests, have a clearly stated mission to anchor the plan
- Missions allow for flexibility - assume your mission is to become the best “X” in the world. This could be a solid intention for an indefinite period whereas the means to achieve the mission will undoubtedly need to flex with the changing landscape.
- A mission statement should resonate with you and your employees as well as customers. There is an emotional and therefore motivational connectivity with a mission that a financial budget just won’t create!
- A mission is a compass. We’ve all heard of scope creep on projects - it’s sometimes hard to stay on task especially if something new and exciting shows up unexpectedly! If you have a mission to keep coming back to you should have an easier time creating consensus with your stakeholders in determining what should be in and what should be out.
2. Accountability is key
- Let me be clear - just because planning is flawed does not mean that everyone gets to throw their hands up in the air when things fail and use this as an excuse.
- Document the assumptions used when the initial plan was put together and ensure everyone contributing is using these same parameters. At least you will have consistency even if there are many unknowns.
- Agree on a timetable for revisiting and potentially revising the plan. If the four horsemen of the apocalypse come knocking six months after the initial plan was agreed you can review your mission to become the best “X” and decide whether the original objectives will still get you there under the current circumstances!
- Ensure you have a clear decision-making framework for editing the plan. If you’re a sole proprietor this shouldn’t be too onerous unless you’re the indecisive type. However, if there are multiple stakeholders you’ll need agreed governance to keep everybody on board and working towards the same goals.
I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to contact me with any comments or questions.