Planning is not about the Plan

Marty Levine

Do a Google search on “change” and you’ll have more than 249,000,000 opportunities to sort through! Amazingly that’s more than 10 times the number of references found for Barack Obama. Certainly change has gotten our attention.

And for very good reason. To be alive is to be in constant flux. Both the internal and the external environments of every organization are in constant motion. Small and large changes take place around the clock. Some are seen as they occur while others occur unnoticed until their impact is felt at a later time. Sometimes the pace of change seems slow and at others it is a rush. But change never stops.

From this perspective, every moment is new and the future is largely unknown.

Leaders, professional and volunteer, are responsible for guiding their organizations into that the future in fulfillment of their mission. Their challenge has been and continues to be how to chart a path forward into a future that is never certain and cannot be fully known.

The frequent response to this challenge is to be sure we implement a serious effort to plan for that future. Our literature is full of the theory and practice of organizational planning. Effective organizations are counseled to ensure they devote sufficient resources to the work of planning. As a corollary, we are taught that the bedrock of good planning is having good information, so we often become consumed with gathering and analyzing information about how our organization functions and about the world in which it operates. And from that foundation of good data we think we can solidly build our organization’s plans for the next 3, or 5 or even 10 years.

And then all too often the plan sits and gathers dust. Or, after it is put into action it quickly runs out of momentum and becomes forgotten as the organization encounters unexpected difficulties, sees new and unpredicted opportunities emerge or gets overwhelmed by its day to day operations. Organizational inertia wins out and things return to old directions and ways of operating.

We often fail because while we are planning to meet changes, we act as if our organization and the environment they operate in are stable and predictable. We think that if we have enough information about our past and present we can see the future clearly. While talking about the constancy of change, we build our futures on static foundations, forgetting that what we know today will not capture the changed world of tomorrow.

Living in a stabile world is comfortable. We are surrounded by the familiar and we know how to respond. Planning as if we operate in a stable world keeps us in this cocoon and protects us from the discomfort of uncertainty and the challenge of adapting. Too often as we start to plan we stop thinking about change.

The work of planning is more important than the plan itself. We need to constantly be aware of the changes that are occurring inside our organizations and of the conditions in which we operate outside our organizational boundaries. The path requires a keen understanding of what we want to accomplish and a recognition that the way there is not through a stable unchanging landscape. We need the ability to constantly see the world as it is unfolding and considering whether our current directions are still the right ones. It requires us to be able to make quick changes in order to meet the challenges of new and unforeseen conditions. It requires us to see data as a barometer for change and as grist for the mill of creativity and innovation within our organizations. Data is only a tool and not the answer to what should be done.

Organizations that are able to flourish in a world of change have clear understandings of their purpose and clear visions of what they want to accomplish. They will recognize that the way they reach those goals are not why they exist. They will have created an environment in which there is constant reflection about the path ahead. They will have the ability to stop in their tracks and change strategies. They know that their plan cannot be seen as fixed and unchangeable. They embrace change as their constant companion and that their ability to constantly adapt to new conditions is the key attribute needed to fulfill their vision.