Maybe the Plan is the Problem

business

I have been doing a lot of thinking of late about strategy and innovation, and how to use these tools to extend our organizations’s mission reach. Both concepts have been widely explored, and yet in some experts’ attempts to create step by step guides for how “do” strategy and innovation, the intuitive/explorative part of the journey gets lost in the quest to quantify.

I am a big believer in detailed plans … at the right place and time. I just don’t happen to believe strategy or innovation are the right place or time. As I mentioned in a previous post , our strategic framework (not plan, framework) fits on one page, and our most innovative efforts have taken us down paths we didn’t expect at the outset. If we had over planned in either of these areas, we would have set targets far short of what we actually accomplished.

You don’t have to take my word for it. In “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning” (Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb 2014) author Roger L. Martin outlines why over planning is terrible for strategy. He contends that plans are how organizations cope with fear, but fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy (whew, that’s good to know!). If fact, he says, if you are totally comfortable with your strategy, it probably isn’t very good.

Likewise, in terms of innovation, the authors in the newly released book Collective Genius note that innovative groups act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. You can’t move systematically toward a new concept, it is a journey of trial and error, gut instincts and new discoveries. How can you definitively plan for that?

While detailed plans for strategy and innovation may be counterproductive, you still need goals and parameters to keep everyone moving in the same direction. For example at the time we identified a strategic goal of extending our mission reach internationally, the intent — the what — was clear. However, if we had made a specific plan for “how”, we probably would have identified a single country to target, and called the plan a success if we met that target. Rather, by leaving the goal open-ended, and intuitively pursuing a variety of paths that presented themselves, we have trained professionals from five continents.

Our philosophy around innovation is that the specifics are going to change along the way anyway, so we start with concepts and prototypes rather than a comprehensive plan, and tweak it all along the way as we learn what works and what doesn’t. Patient persistence, rather than a perfect plan, is what has led to our most impactful innovations.

Strategy and innovation are never sure bets, there is always risk involved. A detailed plan, in effect, means you are choosing a single path and ruling out other variables and options — in many regards actually increasing your risk of missing the mark. As Martin notes, the goal of strategy (and I would add, innovation) is not to eliminate risk, but to increase the odds of success.

Not getting the success you hoped for in your strategy or innovation efforts? Maybe the problem is in your plan.

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One thought on “Maybe the Plan is the Problem

  1. Pingback: Time to Act | Reed About Leadership

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