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Sunday, 11 June 2017

What Happens When Reality Hits Your Plans? You Need To Be Ready!

Over the years I have heard and read ad nauseam that it is essential to plan, to know where your business is going. It is the bedrock on which the successful growing business rests.

The cleverest leader I have ever encountered was the late Jim Slater, possibly the first and certainly initially the most successful of what became known as the “asset strippers” of the 1970s.

When he was asked why he was so successful in comparison with the competition he said simply “because we plan, we know where we are going”.

At the same time I heard a little quote from another source that said: “People want to know two things, how am I doing and where are WE going?” with the implication that only with constant planning can this be communicated satisfactorily.

It strengthens the concept that all great businesses plan their future assiduously, know where they are going and communicate their plans to everyone in the business.

Some do (plan) and some don’t (communicate) but overall planning for the future is generally accepted as best practice.

And there it would have stayed in the ideal to-do list of the leader until one day I happened to have as speaker to my Vistage CEO Peer group, Herb Meyer, who had been a noted journalists in the USA and subsequently served as vice-chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council in the Reagan White House.

Clearly a voice to be reckoned with and his presentation was both fascinating and very far sighted.  However at one fell swoop he almost demolished all my cherished  certainties about the validity of planning with one little, apparently cynical, aphorism:

“No plan can survive its collision with reality”

When I had recovered from the shock (which was pretty quickly if truth be told) I asked if he really meant it.

He said that, of course, he did and pointed out that plans are laid on relatively shifting sands simply because we don’t know what is going to happen in the future.

Joke: If you want to make G-d laugh, show him your strategic plans.

Vistage economics guru, the great Roger Martin-Fagg, always says that if you are making predictions, you will be either wrong or lucky, and that says it all.

Or does it?  In fact good planning relies on  the ability to set objectives that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based) with the caveat that they also need to stretch people out of their comfort zone.

If the objectives are set in this way, the question to ask then is NOT how can we do this but rather What will be need to do in order to achieve the objectives and in specific terms.

The Japanese ishikawa technique for brainstorming the issue is a good way to define the route forward.  Imagine a cartoon fishbone with a spine, ribs and a head.  The objective is the head and the ribs are the various departments that have input to the plan.  We then use stick-it notes and brainstorm all the factors that will be needed to achieve the plan and place them on the appropriate rib.

From there a reasonable plan can be developed but what happens when reality kicks in?  There will always be the unknown lurking in the undergrowth to trip us up and it will usually be from a source that we can do nothing to influence, generally described as PESTLE (political, economic, sociological, technological, legal and environmental).

So what should we do?  Certainly it is far better to plan rather than not while accepting that reality may well change everything.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that our objectives need to change; it could be that the way forward needs to be reassessed to counter the outside influences.  

Whatever is the outcome, we will be better enabled to keep going, keep growing and keep our corporate eyes on an exciting future.

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