Why Plans Fail

We’ve worked on a lot of projects, businesses, alliances, and change efforts of many shapes and sizes over the past 20 years.

And we’ve seen one consistent thorn in the side of even the smartest leaders — something that thwarts, compromises, or destroys change work no matter how much energy, passion, smarts, resources, and sheer hard work is invested. 

It looks like this. You start out with a plan, but reality throws some big curve balls you didn’t anticipate, and the plan doesn’t work. So what do you do?  If you’re like most people, you go back to the drawing board. And for many years, as a consultant and trainer, I just shrugged my shoulders. Nowadays, though, I won’t let you get away with it. If I think a client isn’t prepared for their big ideas and plans to completely disintegrate when reality hits, I won’t even start the project.

All the methodologies, the smartest tools, the deepest spreadsheets, and the most thorough meetings cannot help you cross that abyss. Put another way: imagine you have a map of the oceans, telling you every current, every wind, and every island — but it goes blank as soon as you step into the boat. Plans are like that: from the comfort of the office or boardroom, they make sense. Reality — and the more complex your challenge, the more this is true — laughs, and pushes back.

Life always throws curve balls at plans, so the first key is to be prepared to pivot big time. We call it being both directional (you have a clear direction, clear goals, clear stakeholders, etc.) as well as emergent, so you’re prepared to read the terrain as you go and change your tactics and strategies as needed. Preparing to be both at every step can mean the difference between an effort that fails (can’t hit a curve ball) and one that actually delivers value and real outcomes.

Another key is a clear “North Star” to guide you through all the pivots.  That North Star defines what kind of impact you want to have, even though, especially in its early stages, you’re not sure of your endeavor’s final form. Distinguishing between impact and form en route to your outcome is another critical key.

That’ll be $25K. Seriously, if you understand these things, I’ve just saved you a ton of money and tears.

But wait, there’s more. What we’ve just outlined here requires specific inner abilities. Because this course will pit you against the grain and the dominant paradigm. As soon as you’re actually changing reality, you’re outside the box, at the bleeding edge — and while that might sound cool — in reality it’s really, really hard — and people will not like you. Pushing the edge will push you to your edge, your inner limits of who you are, how you react, how you think and feel, your willpower, and your resolve. And people will push back. Reality pushes back primarily, of course, through people.

The inner abilities needed to endure finding your way over that abyss of not knowing — well, now we’re getting somewhere. That’s what we teach and train our clients; we support them to endure uncertainty and co-create their way forward even when their plans are mincemeat. Those abilities make the difference between an endeavor’s success or failure — because the abilities to pivot, to stay open, to stay focused and yet emergent make the difference between “lost at sea” and reading the current, the wind, and the stars, and finding the way forward, even when the maps go blank.

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