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Why Plans Fail

Every social scientist has a theory for the “one thing” that separates humans from all other species: ability to use tools, self-awareness, language and so on. Another to add to this list is the ability to think about the future and make plans.

In this beginning of a new year, indeed a new decade, people view it as a time to wipe the slate clean and declare resolutions. Another example of goal setting behavior is the plentitude of strategic plans.

Through my coaching and consulting work I have worked with many individuals and groups in the formulation of plans—work I’ve come to love and loathe. My favorite aspect of planning is that it engages the best parts of people. As we think about the future we seek to correct past errors and consider what “getting things right” looks like. Looking forward provides people with hope and positive ambition. Truly, I’ve learned that what people aspire to be is responsible, effective and noble.

My least favorite part of planning is what experience has taught me: plans fail. Not all the time, but most of the time. That doesn’t sound very positive, I realize. Yet, the reality must be addressed. Well meaning plans take a back seat to present urgencies and ingrained habits. As Eisenhower once observed “Plans are useless but planning is essential.” His statement preserves the value of planning even if the plans themselves do not work out. Plans provide a glimpse of what we want and they pull us forward, even if they aren’t fully implemented.

Here are two big reasons plans fail and what can be done to improve the chance for success:

1. Plans demand more time and energy. When I start strategic planning with leadership teams, the first thing I say is “be prepared to add a part time job on top of your full time job. If you do not, then this plan will fail.” It’s not a threat so much as a promise. Every plan calls for new initiatives, things that have not yet been done but need to be. The problem is that we already have full plates of demands and responsibilities. I know a woman, who, whenever she buys something new (clothing, books) she has to get rid of something she already owns. Apply this same principle to your plans. For every initiative you add, remove an inferior initiative already on your plate. For example, if you plan to exercise for an hour a day, then commit to cancelling an activity that you already spend an hour doing. I once read that Proctor and Gamble would identify their lowest performing product line and replace it with a newer, promising one—even if that lowest performing one was profitable. The idea is to channel existing resources into potentially higher yielding pursuits.

2. Plans are often inauthentic from the start. Many plans are born of “shoulds” and “oughts” instead of following the beat of one’s own drummer. I recently read research about 2 types of goals: “self-concordant” vs. “introjected.” (by Kennon M. Sheldon at University of Missouri-Columbia). Self-concordant goals are those that are inspired by a person’s deep and true personal interests. Contrast that with introjected goals, which are external “shoulds” that we have internalized. Understanding these two types of goals helps you discern between goals are truly aligned with your deep desires and interests from those that you weren’t truly committed to from the beginning. It’s often hard to determine, for example, if the goal of “getting fit” is something you truly want for yourself or if you have internalized society’s pressure to look a certain way. There is a big difference in how one engages a goal that is self-concordant vs. one that is introjected. Self-concordant individuals were shown to be more positive, self-actualized, open, engaged and resilient in the face of obstacles. While these 2 types of goals seem to more about individuals, I believe these concepts also apply to teams and organizations. In the language of Positive Leadership, self-concordant goals are those that are consistent with a clear and authentic purpose (Capacity #2). Sheldon describes three abilities to help people be more self-concordant:

A. Ability to distinguish between enduring values and interests from momentary whims.
B. Ability to distinguish things that are truly “me” from those that are “not me”—or goals represent one’s internal interests and values from goals that represent others’ interests and values.
C. Ability to distinguish the “what” of goals from the “why” of goals and focus more on the “why.”

The first challenge describes the problem of human bandwidth. It would be great if we worked that same as a car’s gas gauge. We could see how much fuel we currently have, compare that with the distance we need to travel and determine if we have enough to get us there. Unfortunately, we are not designed that way. It is difficult for us to know how much time, energy and creativity we have (the fuel) and it is often difficult to gauge the distance we must travel because achievements do not come in the form of mile markers (the destination).

The second challenge is one of will. Some goals are consistent with our internal values and longings and they provide wind to our sails. Others are not consistent and may actually be opposed to what we truly want to accomplish. Those require us to tack back and forth against the current. Yes, we are able to “buckle down” and do the things that we must. But we all have our breaking points where we’ve had enough of doing things because we have to or somebody said that we must. Goals that truly reflect our purpose and passions have a much greater chance for success and provide deeper satisfaction.

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