Total Leadership

FRAMINGHAM (05/01/2000) - Dwight Eisenhower may have been the ultimate master planner of the last century. He orchestrated the largest movement of troops and material in history--the D-day invasion--across the English Channel against heavily fortified defenses and succeeded. So what did he have to say about good planning? "Before a battle, planning is everything. But during a battle, planning is useless."

In that phrase, he captured the central paradox of strategic planning: On the one hand, it is absolutely necessary to plan, anticipate and prepare for what might be down the road. On the other hand, plans and planning processes can get in the way when you're in the midst of execution or battle. Given the complexity and rapid rate of change in the technology arena, many argue that planning today is impossible. According to this view, you're better off just acting and adapting--Fire. Ready. Aim.

TO PLAN OR NOT TO PLAN--THAT IS NOT THE QUESTION In my experience, this is a false debate. If you're trapped in it, you'll never get anywhere. The issue is not whether to do strategic planning. Without it, you're flying blind. The real issues are (1) how much planning to do, (2) how to do it well and (3) when to do it. Leadership is required to cut through the unproductive debates and focus on doing the right amount of planning in the right way. Then, stop and concentrate on execution and learning, which feed back into the next cycle of planning.

At one organization I worked with, we just couldn't seem to get strategic planning off the ground. Plans were made by a few staff members and were largely ignored, and executives simply wouldn't make the time. We needed it desperately because the combination of a fast-moving outside environment, emerging competition and a management operation in some disarray was a dangerous one. The problem was twofold. First, the culture was action oriented, so people instinctively rejected the idea of spending time planning rather than acting. Second, the management team had recently been burned.

ANATOMY OF A PLANNING DISASTER--WHAT NOT TO DO Several years before I arrived, the company had gone through a classic planning disaster. It kicked off with a huge visioning exercise, complete with lots of expensive consultants. This culminated in a multimillion-dollar systems development effort. The project took three long years to fail--but not before enriching hundreds of outside experts. It failed because there was too much planning, done the wrong way, with no relationship to execution.

Specifically, the previous effort at strategic planning had made all the prime mistakes that I've seen made:

No measurable goals. This company set out a general vision and specific tasks but had no quantifiable short- and medium-term goals that leaders could be accountable for.

Unchanged incentives. The company put all its good thinking in a document, gave the work to someone else and failed to realign its incentives. So, in the heat of day-to-day business, everyone went back to doing what they had always done.

Faulty estimation. The company overestimated what could be done in the long term and underestimated what was necessary in the short term to work toward larger goals.

Monolithic effort. It failed to break the problem down into modular, incremental chunks that could be tackled individually. This created the "grand design" effect--a large, unwieldy effort that slowly but surely grinds to a halt.

No milestones. The company didn't link the plan to resource allocations or results-oriented milestones. These make it possible to set priorities and make course corrections.

Inflexibility. It was unable to look flexibly at the future, to develop alternative paths, contingent scenarios or experiment with the sensitivities of its actions on future outcomes.

Misplaced focus. The company ignored the path. It didn't take the trouble to "backward chain" until there was a real understanding of just what route was required to get to its goal.

Expense perspective. It looked at the cost of change as an expense, not an investment. As a result, it lacked the incentive to identify and manage risks or take the steps needed to capture returns.

HITTING THE SWEET SPOT So how did the team get a new strategic planning approach off the ground? Our first step was to completely forget about planning. We just focused on problems and opportunities that were staring us in the face. The sages have always said that good fortune is when preparedness meets opportunity. Well, we figured opportunities might be able to inspire us to higher levels of preparedness and vision for the future.

So we tackled one problem and opportunity after another--cutting cycle time, improving productivity and upgrading infrastructure, for starters. As we went along, we began what I called "mountaintop" sessions--half-day executive meetings held monthly in which we stepped above the fray to look around us, look down on the troops, look over at the enemy and look ahead to the future.

We'd then go back onto the battlefield with a different perspective--a collective one--on the daily skirmishes each of us was fighting.

The first of these sessions was little more than a chance to air long-standing complaints and issues. But by the second, we were all beginning to look toward the horizon. People started meeting offline to begin initiatives that had real strategic importance. By the third and fourth sessions, we had built up enough momentum to start doing more formal planning--which started as listing major initiatives, creating an investment portfolio and committing to tracking progress and results. We identified process owners and allocated staff to support executive efforts. Soon we had identified key issues as strategic points of emphasis and were working to look even further ahead.

Before everyone knew it, we were in the rhythm of a solid strategic planning process. But it wasn't one that was linked to an annual cycle or that involved formal documents. Instead, it was keyed to the style, history, culture and personalities of the management team--which emphasized execution. It quickly became central to how we did business.

For us, the most significant impact turned out to be the element of self-discovery. We owned the process of determining our future because we were creating it, not simply completing steps in an orderly, preordained process.

Planning had emerged out of action, not the other way around. In other words, we made the road by walking.

If you're struggling with how to get your team engaged in a planning process, I can't think of any better way to get moving toward wherever you want to go.

Send your planning tales or thoughts about our ongoing Total Leadership column to Christopher Hoenig has been an entrepreneur, government executive (director for information management and technology issues at the GAO) and consultant, and is author of a forthcoming book on problem-solving and leadership techniques. He is now chairman and CEO of Exolve in Washington, D.C., focusing on next-generation web-based problem solving.

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