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HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager's Journal: Planning, Part One

Source Manager's Journal: Planning, Part One

They need a plan. So said several callers to Radio Ones In the Mix last week. They were talking about specific issues related to emergency services on the West End of St. Thomas, but their comments could apply to any number of subjects. Implicit in the callers comments were several important, if unstated, questions: Why is a plan needed? What would the plan look like? And what difference would a plan make?
There are many kinds of plans, ranging from strategic to smaller action plans intended to solve problems like delivering emergency services to a community. In life, we regularly face difficult situations that are the result of either actions without thought or thought without any action. Plans are one of the most important tools for avoiding these situations. They link clear thoughts and ideas to a set of defined actions. They force us to balance commitments and resources, to set clear priorities. Without this balance we have wish lists rather than plans, and as Virgin Islanders have often witnessed, commitments without the ability to fulfill them. Planning processes challenge us to test our implicit assumptions and to make them explicit.
Planning processes are also the best opportunity to look at trends and make the best possible forecast of the future. In looking at these trends, we are required to face realities and, once again, look at assumptions that have become the accepted wisdom but may be wrong. In planning, we look at both available data and our basic assumptions. For many smaller organizations, as opposed to government or large corporations, testing assumptions is more important than looking at data, much of which is either not dependable or not organized in ways that are most useful for planning.
Good plans are inevitably about change. They are about a clear vision, what we would like the future to look like for our community, organization, business or group and our strategy for getting there. Vision and strategy are essential to good planning, but in the end, the successful plan is the one that gets implemented. It doesnt matter how long the plan is, how nice it looks or how cool the graphics are: What counts is execution, and this is where many plans fail. I often think of the planning-implementation continuum as a long line drawn with a magic marker. The line starts out bold and dark and then, farther along, it becomes more and more faint, and in the end, just kind of vanishes. Thats what happens to lots of plans. Nobody really kills these plans; they just wither and fade away, until someone remarks, Gee, look what I just found on the bookshelf, our strategic plan.
In discussing planning initiatives, I used to say that the process was as important as the final product. Then I began saying that the process is more important than the final product. Today I am getting close to saying that the process is the final product. There are two keys to successful planning. The first is to produce the best possible plan, a realistic document that sets clear and achievable goals and defines the path for getting to those goals. The second is — starting on Day One — to build ownership of the plan and its implementation. In this sense, the first planning meeting is the start of the implementation process.
In recent years, I have noticed an interesting pattern. Strategic Plans typically have a life cycle of three years. In returning to clients to work on the next planning cycle, I have found something that could be considered disturbing but, in fact, has been very satisfying. It is that these organizations have achieved the goals that were defined three years ago, but they have not achieved them in the way that was spelled out in the plans linear steps. What happened? Because the management group owned the plan and its goals and had a shared commitment to implementing it, when some problem or barrier emerged, they remained focused on the vision and goal and simply found other ways to achieve them.
What does ownership mean? Ownership starts with getting the right people in the room. These are the people with the authority to make decisions, the knowledge and information needed and — in some ways most important — the people who will implement the plan. Ownership then grows out of sharing perspectives and in focused conflict. Conflict — the expression of differences — is critical to producing good plans, and people have to feel free to engage in it. The inability to engage in productive conflict is often a problem in hierarchical and status-conscious organizational cultures. It is worth exploring this problem at the beginning of the planning process.
The most important thing for the group to own is a vision of the future. The first President Bush gave this term a bad name by referring to the vision thing. The vision is not some soft or airbrushed version of the future. It is what we want the organization or business to look like in three years. It is how it will look different operationally and physically. It is the improvements in services described in concrete detail. It is how the organization will be stronger, and how it will be allocating its resources to make itself stronger and more effective. The vision is the hook on which the planning process is hung. If where we are is A, the vision is B, and much of the plan is the path from A to B.
By developing a new vision, the group also begins the process of changing its mental model, the way in which it sees itself, its field or industry and the communities or markets that it serves. The new mental model will drive the process of overcoming surprises and bumps in the road on the way to implementing the plan.
Ownership is also based on realism. It is invariably better to build a plan around five goals that will be achieved 100 percent than 15 goals that will be achieved 50 percent, because over time the 50 percent will erode to zero and the plan will fail. My sense is that the Virgin Islands suffers from two problematic tendencies in this area. The first is pessimism based on unfulfilled promises, particularly in the public sector, so that there is an unfortunate acceptance of failures to implement many things, whether they are physical improvements or getting schools ready for the new term. The second is a tendency toward grandiosity. If one listens to the campaign ads on local radio or just reads The Source, far too many grand goals are projected, goals to which no identifiable resources have been attached. In the end, grandiosity and a lack of realism simply fuel further pessimism and cynicism.
Finally, the most important measure of ownership is explicit commitment to implementing the plan. Commitment is different than consensus. It is not the result of compromise but of everyone agreeing to implement what has been decided after all views have been heard and discussed. The result of commitment is that all of the key people are moving in the same direction toward a shared and realistic vision for the future. At this point, the plan becomes a powerful tool for positive change. An organization in which everyone is pulling in the same direction is going to succeed, period. This is why the process is so important.
Next week, some specific planning tools and suggestions.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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