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  • 02.02.08

A Different Approach to Planning

Can you name four magnificent events in your life which came about because of perfect planning? Sure, there was the vacation in ’99. Then the move from… oh, scratch that. Even if I count a house we built, which was well-planned but not as-planned, I can’t name four. Neither can anyone else I’ve asked. Yet on Groundhog Day, when more than 70% of all New Year resolutions have been deep-sixed, it’s easy to view the eleven months ahead as an empty field for making plans: carefully orchestrated, meticulously organized, stressed over and un-shadowed plans.

Can you name four magnificent events in your life which came about because of perfect planning? Sure, there was the vacation in ’99. Then the move from… oh, scratch that. Even if I count a house we built, which was well-planned but not as-planned, I can’t name four. Neither can anyone else I’ve asked.

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Yet on Groundhog Day, when more than 70% of all New Year resolutions have been deep-sixed, it’s easy to view the eleven months ahead as an empty field for making plans: carefully orchestrated, meticulously organized, stressed over and un-shadowed plans.

In the glow of possibility we seem to forget the 80/20 rule, the path of least resistance, the law of attraction, synchronicity and serendipity as the more accurate patterns for how (and why) change happens in real life.

I don’t propose you stop planning all together. Buckminster Fuller said, “All physical movement is a series of course corrections.” After you craft plans, persistently revisit and tenderly modify them whenever they lose step with the music. Be less gentle when subsequent activities acquire a life of their own. Above all, spend your time adjusting and equilibrating rather than entrenching yourself in plans created so far.

Take for instance a mid-size company influenced by a big consulting firm to develop a strategic plan. Objectives were agreed upon, analytic staff members were selected to lead the development, customers were polled, constituents and suppliers were surveyed and the board agreed this was to be the organization’s new work. Task groups were formed and emails started flying.

Within only a few months, however, many who joined the development team because of an unwavering belief in planning (“If you don’t know where you’re going, every path leads there” and so on) became disillusioned and their energy began to flow elsewhere. Meanwhile, the development team grew frustrated and felt abandoned, becoming increasingly controlling rather than easing up.

When I was brought in to figure out how to get the strategy back on course, I interviewed the relevant and affected parties, learning that nonstop requests to ask if everyone was on track had become distracting and destructive, creating an environment inhospitable to how passionate people innovate and create something full of life.

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We replaced check-in emails and conference calls with mid-course gatherings, both in person and online, where participants across task groups joined in to talk about new discoveries as well as how new information could help everyone work toward a better future.

In parallel, senior management met to revisit any objectives that needed rejiggering, actually altering their organization’s targets to take into account new market factors, unexpected plays from competitors, changes in the economy and newfound intel from their teams.

Everyone in the organization became less focused on the course itself (recognizing the course itself didn’t matter) and instead examined how where they were at any time could get them to their destination. One department head said this approach reminded her of how walking through the old town of an ancient city proves far more valuable than zooming along a modern road. You get to the same destination, but from only one do you actually learn something en route.

Even the organization’s efficiency experts spoke of their delight when changed happened faster than anyone expected because people were now looking up and around rather than down at their desks figuring out how to cajole their work into someone else’s form.

Almost a year after the new strategic plan was adopted and now guides much of their work (and as you might expect, gets regular tweaks), I hear from employees who tell me they’ve adopted a similar process in their personal lives: moving off course to be on target.

Rather than make your trek into spring fretting about the path you’ve already meandered off of, reassess where you are. Reflect on where you have journeyed. Then ask yourself if your target needs to be moved a little or maybe even completely changed, and then reset your trajectory accordingly. The sun will come up.

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Marcia Conner > www.marciaconner.com

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