Right from our school days we’re told about the importance of planning and how to prepare for the future by readying ourselves in advance of any given situation. There are entire departments and job roles devoted to planning. But when we become a leader, we discover the truth about making a plan: that the plan is nothing but planning is everything. Why? Because “no plan survives contact with the enemy” (as they say in the military). Since the armed forces know all there is to know about planning, this observation warrants examination.

The truth about planning, and the message from the military, is that it doesn’t matter how good your plan is: once you begin to execute it, it will ALWAYS need to change. Yes, planning is important in leadership, but being adept at adapting your plan is much more important.

I’ve been thinking about the role of adaptation a lot recently, perhaps as a result of the play I saw a few weeks ago (you can read more about this here). I had to laugh when my best-laid plan for a weekend run went awry and I found myself having to adapt over and over again! In fact, the experience was a thoroughly useful (if frustrating) reminder of the truth about planning.

Best laid plans

I’ve been suffering from an Achilles injury which has affected my ability to run up and down hills. Since I live in a very hilly area this is proving a challenge, so I’m having to plan my exercise routes carefully. My trainer and I came up with a brilliant brainwave though: the ground will always be level alongside water, so I would drive to the river and go for a lovely waterside run.

However, I had failed to take account of the recent wet weather and, shortly after I set off from my parked car, I encountered a large flood where the river flowed under a road. Never mind, there were steps up and over the road, so I climbed these and carried on. Each time I came across a flood I managed to take a different route but in every instance it seemed to involve going up a hill and I was further and further from the riverside. So much for avoiding hills!

Eventually, with very wet feet, I abandoned my plan, listened to my intuition, and found a route back to the car, having clocked up around ten miles, luckily without any ankle discomfort. However, it had taken me a very long time to acknowledge that my plan was no longer fit for purpose.

Four lessons learned

As I reflect on my run now, there are four lessons that are worth highlighting:

  1. Ask “Why is this the wrong thing to do?”

I really thought we’d cracked it when we came up with the idea of running by the river, but (particularly as a former rower) I really should have realised that all the recent rainfall would inevitably result in flooding. As a leader, it’s vital to question our plan before we execute it, by asking “Why is this the WRONG thing to do?”. It really helps to hone our planning skills and uncover potential problems.

  1. Don’t jump in too quickly

It’s a natural human instinct to want to get on with it once we have a plan in place, but taking a pause is so important. This is particularly true when we’re under time pressure. The less time we have, the quicker we feel we have to move, but spending a bit longer than we want to on planning will always pay off in the end.

  1. Intuition matters

While thinking plays an important role when we’re executing our plan, it is when we come up against obstacles, particularly unexpected blocks which we’re unprepared for, that it pays to trust our instincts. Sometimes, no matter what probability or common sense tell us, it is our intuition that can be our most important guide. This whisper of a gut feel is something that we only hear when the ‘big brass band’ of our thinking in our mind is quiet enough, so be sure to listen out for it.

  1. No regrets, just learning

When we find ourselves ‘in the field’ and having to rewrite our plans, it’s important that we don’t beat ourselves up about what has gone wrong. We cannot change the past and undoing a plan is almost impossible, so we should take a pause and regroup before continuing. After Action Review is a great tool for learning from when things don’t go well, and – perhaps fittingly – originates in the armed forces. We may not be on the battlefield, but we leaders can take a leaf from the Army’s book and call an AAR to hear from our team about how things are going, what has gone as expected and what hasn’t. It’s the difference between expectation and experience where we find the richest learning to help us adapt and move forward.

For more on effective planning and replanning, our blog is a useful resource, and there is lots more advice on our iTS AAR website about AAR as a leadership and learning tool. And of course, please get in touch if you need additional support.

I’m off to plan my next run, with the benefit of hindsight!

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