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Planning is a cornerstone of leadership and a foundational competency required for success in today’s complex and uncertain business environment. Love it or hate it (and plenty of managers and supervisors do hate it), planning is a non-negotiable priority for anyone responsible for driving results.

Yet, this key activity that ensures alignment, appropriate resource allocation, risk mitigation and organizational support is fraught with challenges. Field research over the past two years highlights the most persistent planning problems facing leaders.

Propensity for action

A natural bias for action on the part of many leaders teamed with a time-starved workplace conspire to create a sense of urgency to get moving and do something. As a result, many leaders don’t believe they have time for planning. They find themselves consistently approaching work in a “fire, aim, ready” fashion. And they can justify their action (versus planning) with a line of reasoning that’s hard to argue with: “It’s just going to change anyway.”

The planning puzzle

In an effort to ensure that appropriate planning actually happens, many organizations have developed sophisticated systems to support leaders including software, portals, prompts, and more. But these “helpful tools” are frequently too complex and time-consuming to operate at the speed of business today.

Planning as an activity versus a process

In an effort to complete ever-increasing volumes of work, may leaders have found that survival depends upon boiling even complex tasks down to fit a checklist mentality. They recast planning as an activity to be crossed off their lengthy to do lists. As a result, they miss the point that the value is not in the plan itself but rather in the planning.

Planning makes perfect

Still other leaders have been sold on the value of planning to the extent that they believe that the perfect plan will produce perfect results. So, they work, tinker, iterate, massage and refine it eternally in an effort to get it just right while others become immobilized by the pressure of perfection and do nothing.

Post-plan dilemma

One of the most frequent and dangerous problems leaders face has little to do with the initial planning effort and everything to do with what happens—or doesn’t happen—after the plan is put in place.

Leaders are trained to develop the plan. They learn how to critically consider the future and lay out paths to reach it. They explore effective strategies for allocating resources and anticipating risks. They acquire skills in scenario and contingency planning. Many go on to master the technology to support the plan with tools like PERT, Gantt and even Microsoft Project.

But there’s little training on or discussion about what happens to the plan after it’s submitted and underway. Leaders are confused about when to persist with the plan and when to pivot or change direction. After all, you don’t want to bail at the first sign of trouble. (In fact, adversity and challenges can strengthen resolve, enhance team relationships and build capacity.) Neither do you want to stick with a plan beyond its usefulness.

Unfortunately, there’s more art than science to all of this. Gathering data, monitoring the environment and picking up on cues from stakeholders, customers and employees can help inform the ‘persist or pivot’ decision. So can considering questions like these with your team:

  • Is the plan complete — with the necessary objectives, actions, milestones and results outlined?
  • Have we really been working the plan? Has it been executed as envisioned?
  • Is there a quantifiable gap between intended and actual results?
  • What does the trend line look like?
  • Have underlying assumptions changed?
  • Is there new information about the customer (internal or external) or related requirements?
  • Has there been a change to the available resources?
  • Have new competitors or strategy changes within existing ones significantly altered the competitive landscape?

Effective leaders understand that the plan itself is just a small part of the more important and ongoing planning (and re-planning) process. They engage in an open dialogue with others and consciously balance their commitment to what they’ve put down on paper with nimble and appropriate responsiveness. And as a result, they benefit from flexible plans that teams enthusiastically implement and are still willing to change when necessary.