When is a plan not a plan?

Change leadership inspires us to create plans but that’s often not enough. How well are your plans serving you?
Not all plans are created equal

Everyone knows that making a plan for a change process is essential to success. But when was the last time you stepped back to consider how well your plans serve your aims? I spend a lot of my time working with leaders and teams who are disappointed by the progress they’ve made in a change project. “But we had a plan” is a cry of anguish I’m getting used to hearing. 

Successful change leadership is not about one thing, it’s way more interesting and complex than that. But plans are definitely part of it. Where do people most often go wrong with their plans? Here are the things I see most often:

  1. When it’s just a list. 
  2. When it’s a wish list. 
  3. When the people are missing. 
  4. When the plan is written but not walked. 

1. When it's just a list

Learn to love Gantt charts

A plan often contains lists, but that doesn’t mean a list is a plan. Too many of us stop at the point we’ve noted all the things that need to be done – that’s good but there’s more to do before we have a plan. 

It’s not always comfortable to get into questions of priority and dependencies and sequence. But it is an essential step for turning a list into a plan. Call me old-fashioned but I’m never convinced it’s a plan until I see a Gantt chart.

2. When it's a wish list

Admit it – we’ve all done it – write a load of ideas that would be great IF ONLY…

It’s never comfortable for leaders, but we have to get used to going back through our plans with the eye of “really??” – and then weed out the bits that really are just wishful thinking. While you may end up with something less inspiring, it’ll also be less disappointing.

3. When the people are missing

Leadership is the art of getting things done through peopleSo many of the plans I’m asked to read describe a change process which is almost entirely devoid of people. In ‘the real world’ we instinctively know that it’s people who make change happen, and often people who are the recipients or victims of change. But, somehow, in a work context, we apply a kind of clumsy rationalism that feels the need to talk in the abstract. The result is that our plans are full of magical thinking – “this will happen, and then that will be accomplished”. 

Until your plan says who is going to do what, with whom, when and how – it’s just an intellectual exercise, not a plan.

4. When the plan is written but not walked

Often there’s really not much wrong with the failed plans I’m asked to help with. They’re based on good ideas, the team have taken a critical eye to it, weeding out some of the wild ambition and ensuring there’s a practicality throughout. Yet still change hasn’t occured. 

I’ve learned to ask about what happened after the plan was written – and learned to sit in the awkwardness of silence. Or sometimes there’s a story of distractions, personnel changes, shifting priorities and other things that mean that the plan wasn’t actually put into practice. 

It’s not always necessary to ‘go back to the drawing board’ when your plan hasn’t worked – sometimes you just need to walk it. 

When is a plan not a plan? 4 tips to avoid disappointment in #leadingchange. 1 a list is not a plan. 2 a wish list never cuts it. 3 plans need people. 4 plans have to be walked not just written.


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