But We Had a Plan!

When my younger son, Quinn, played basketball at Salve Regina University, I noticed something: When things went badly during a game, the coach would call a time-out and summon the team to the sideline. As the players assembled, he’d pull an index card out of the breast pocket of his shirt, scan it, put it back in his pocket, and start screaming at the players.

One evening, after another Salve loss, Quinn and I — along with my older son, Sean — were in a pizza joint in Newport. I asked Quinn what the index card and the screaming were all about.

He said, “Coach writes his game plan on the index card. When he’s screaming, he’s telling us we’re not following the plan.”

I looked at Sean, who already was a successful basketball coach: “Do you have a plan for every game? I’ve never seen you look at notes of any kind.”

Sean said, “I scout every team and have a plan for every game. But I can’t know what’s going to happen till the ball goes up.”

There it is.

Long-range planning does not deal with future decisions but with the future of present decisions. (Peter Drucker)

Buckle Up

Especially in business, plans fail — or fail to live up to expectations — for three reasons:

  1. They’re viewed as ends, not as means. As a consequence, there’s no constructive response, no contingency, no Plan B for those occasions on which the ball goes up … but doesn’t come down as expected.
  2. They’re conducted as strategic exercises that never translate into tactical realities. In this regard, they’re like mission statements: Our mission is to be the biggest, best, baddest, and most modest. Really? In a vacuum? What happens when your competitors start getting bigger, better, and badder?
  3. As a result of 1 and 2, they’re never used to run the business:

Le Grand Fromage: We just completed our strategic plan for the year.
Le Petit Laquais.: Nice! How will that affect the company operationally?
Le Grand Fromage: Who?

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, the road to obsolescence is paved with moot plans. If the plan doesn’t include change as a variable, if it doesn’t allow for observation and adjustment when the ball goes up, if it doesn’t allow for flexible adaptation to change at the tactical level, and if it’s never put into operation, buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

And it’s not likely to end well.

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