Failing to Plan or Planning to Fail?

Planning has a lot in common with eating broccoli: As we get older, we may find we like it!

IF you think that you have trouble getting your employees to plan or are not pleased with the quality of their planning, you may be surprised at how little practice they have had at true planning. We have often commented that it seems teaching planning is one of the most difficult courses of instruction in our curriculum. It is clear students absorb the information, but is it equally obvious most just do not seem to incorporate it into their day-to-day activities nor in designing their careers? Through discussions with other faculty, we've found we are not alone in our frustration. Until recently we thought it must be a lack of our teaching skill that prevented this utilization of a valuable life tool, and as a result we have spent a great deal of time reassessing our teaching approach and process.

The flaw in our teaching is found in an "assumption" that planning is a natural act we have learned to do since birth, one practiced by most people. In reflecting on this assumption, we discovered we first must define true planning and differentiate it from simple reaction or taking the path of least resistance. True planning requires examining various potential outcomes and decision-making, not just reacting or moving forward in time. It is not just the inevitable outcome of proceeding into the future, as many seem to think, or at least practice that is based on planning. True planning requires that we identify the desired outcome and the values that outcome will deliver, then form a vision and contrast it against other potential outcomes. Once this is done, we then identify the steps required to make that vision real. Reacting, or "sliding into the future," is what most of us do rather than plan; this is not real planning because we may or may not think about our journey into the future and consider alternative outcomes.

Our opportunities for planning are not as frequent or available as we might imagine. As young people, we find most of our decisions do not permit much latitude for extreme deviation from the expected course of travel, nor do most families show much tolerance for alternative visions outside their value structure. It is most human of us for us to tend only to test the boundaries on what we feel are acceptable basic decisions. We are frequently amused by organizations for which we do planning that cajole their employees to "think outside of the box." In order to use solutions found outside the box, your organization must be willing to live outside the box and to plan outside the box.

It might be argued that going to college requires a teenager to plan. Upon examination this assumption is often flawed; most high school children feel college is expected of them, and few do any real planning. The typical college student changes majors five times while pursuing a bachelor's degree, resulting in both lost time and additional cost. This changing of majors seems to reflect a certain lack of planning (or quality planning, at least). Do we think about the type of person we would like to have as a mate and then conduct a search, or do we react to what we see and feel? Do most of us plan to get married, or do we more or less fall into the state of marriage? If so, could that explain the high divorce rate? Do we plan for our first house, or do we see one we like and react to it and the deal? Do most of us conduct a massive job search and then take the job that fits our career plan, or do we react first to where we think we must live and then take the best offer? If most of us do not use planning to arrive at these most important outcomes, then when do we plan?

Taking the Alternate Route
Based on these reflections, it may be time to reexamine our assumption about planning being a natural process that is done frequently and being a natural part of our everyday lives. If we carry out this reexamination, we may discover we must carefully reintroduce planning into our operations and that, to be effective, it must be done without damage to the employees' self confidence, taught along a different paradigm.

If we are going to re-teach planning, then let's use the opportunity to teach a process that can drive "out of the box" thinking! We advocate the "Walking Backwards" model for obtaining robust and non-reactive outcomes. We have developed as a result of this thinking a definition for "out of the box" thinking: Simply put, it is non-reactive thinking that actually considers alternatives without artificially imposed constraints. These artificial constraints are numerous, quite addictive, and limiting on both individual and organizational levels:

  1. It is not our normal way of doing business;
  2. It does not follow the momentum of past actions;
  3. It is not directed at navigation of the problem but at resolving the problem or obstacle;
  4. It has not been tried before;
  5. It does not rely on traditional performers or suppliers within the organization;
  6. No one else is doing it:
  7. It requires me to accept responsibility for the idea;
  8. It requires us to cooperate with those people;
  9. Someone else might be recognized;
  10. Failure is unacceptable.

If the world is truly about competition, then following the "ruts of the wagon in front" will never allow us to win. It is the wagon that takes the alternate route that will win. The planning process is about risk reduction by identifying the plan's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats prior to the start of the journey. We should not try to solve the problem; all that is really necessary is for us to "navigate" the problem. Anyway, problems involving people and organizations tend not to stay solved because of the values attached to the problem and the influence they have on decision-making.

The "Walking Backwards" Strategic Planning Model is both quite simple and intuitive at the same time. Using it requires that we have a firm understanding of the mission of the organization or the individual. It starts with the identification of the prime values that will be used for decision-making. It is suggested that at first, no more than five values be used, and these will be the test to which all other parts of the plan are subjected to ensure the plan does not deviate from our values, interest, and expectations (VIE). VIE represents the past, current, and future states of our desired outcome for the plan. Yes, the past does influence our future decisions and our expectations.

The quality test for goal and objective writing is that they must at minimum equal the plan's vision when all are "added together."

The next step is articulating what you are supposed to be doing in a one-sentence format. Why one sentence? It makes sure you truly understand your or your organization's mission. This, appropriately called the mission statement, will become the mental shorthand to ensure you do not deviate from your required course when outstanding or unexpected opportunities arise on your journey to the desired outcome of your plan. It flags the need for decision-making once the plan is set and implemented.

Next comes our vision. A good vision is a compelling argument of the desired future state the plan will achieve upon completion. It is a motivational tool, a tool for selling the plan; it provides a rich contextual picture of what the plan will accomplish. Many planners do not use the vision approach and, as a result, miss out on the opportunity for motivating superiors and subordinates in the organization. All of us have stakeholders--both individual and organizational--that we need to support our plans.

The vision is worthless without a robust and encompassing set of goals and objectives. Good goals are "targets," and objectives are understandable, specific, and measurable. The quality test for goal and objective writing is that they must at minimum equal the plan's vision when all are "added together." The people for whom the goals and objectives are written must find them individually realistic, and someone must be accountable for their accomplishment within a given time.

Dealing with Problems
As in all plans, contingencies must be made for potential problems; this is done through use of a variety of tools that range from force-field analysis to SWOT analysis, Situational Analysis, or the Environmental Scan. One of the simplest tools to use is the SWOT analysis, which is simply a listing of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats that the accomplishment of the plan may reveal on its way to actualization.

I suggest that the top five of each of the categories be used to develop future strategies for navigating the identified issues. This will ensure a road map has been developed around any obstacle identified on the journey to the accomplishment of the vision. Prioritizing the issues in each category is referred to as a Gap Analysis. We have found that no more than five of the highest risk factors need to have strategies developed that allow navigation of the identified problem. These strategies should be constructed by stating the issue they seek to resolve, identifying short- and long-term actions, the time required, and who will be responsible for the strategy implementation.

We have now completed our plan; we have identified where we are now, where we want to go, and how we plan to get there. In reality, that's all planning is about. Let us caution you on one remaining point: All plans influence or affect the other plans or the plans of others. It is important that this be anticipated to avoid unintended harm from occurring to others or to our own plans. Non-reactive planning is a very powerful force to be unleashed and requires due diligence in creation and implementation.

This column appeared in the February 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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