ALC English Journal Article February 2014

TOO Much Planning?

QUESTION: How should I manage subordinates who are too careful and spend too much time planning? I’d like them to start projects more swiftly and boldly.

ANSWER: Ready – Aim – Fire! Skilled and confident marksmen follow these three simple steps to hit their target. Overly careful people, on the other hand, tend toward “Ready – aim – aim – aim – aim – aim . . . fire.” Unfortunately their results won’t be any better, especially if the target is moving. In business we must often hit a moving target, and sometimes that target isn’t clearly visible. If your people lack the confidence to proceed in the face of uncertainty, or your organization penalizes people for mistakes, it’s no wonder they hesitate to “fire”! Being too careful and over-planning may be the way your people protect themselves from their anxiety. But there is a point in every project where additional planning doesn’t produce any additional benefit. And delays from over-planning can actually increase risk, for example in the form of missed opportunities.

Be Agile! A more effective approach is called “agile project management”. Rather than being surprised by inevitable change and uncertainty, flexibility is designed into an agile project plan. A handy way to remember the agile methodology is: Anticipate change, Generate confidence, Initiate action, Liberate thinking, Evaluate results. Openly embracing the agile approach as a legitimate business process will accelerate the start of projects in your team. 

Experiment and Prototype. This approach, common in the world of innovation, can make it safer for your people to start their projects swiftly and boldly. Frame the first phase of each project as an experiment, and set a milestone for reviewing goals and plans. Instead of perfecting a work product, encourage your people to learn from prototypes and get early feedback from key stakeholders. For example, if the goal is to expand your business into Singapore, don’t sign a five-year lease for an expensive office in the heart of town. Call a dozen of your current clients who have offices in Singapore and ask to be connected to their local contacts. Send one person there for a couple of weeks to meet them and get to know the area. Based on this initial visit, update your goals and plans. Then design the next experiment. This iterative approach is much more likely to result in success than a detailed plan launched without a visit to Singapore!

Firefighters Start Fires! Of course, a complete lack of planning is simply irresponsible. Don’t go to the opposite extreme and become one of the “Fire! Fire! Fire!” types of marksmen. As a result of insufficient planning, these people end up putting out a lot of fires – most of which they started!

Naturally the agile approach isn’t suitable for every project. If you only have one chance to get something right, then it makes sense to be extremely careful and create painstaking plans prior to taking action. But I’ve found that most projects can benefit from this more flexible approach. You can help your people strike the right balance between planning and action by officially adopting an agile approach to projects. Encourage them to experiment, learn from mistakes, and adapt their plans throughout the project. Even better, demonstrate this behavior yourself in your own projects. Experiment and prototype, don’t perfect! And when you do fail, “fail forward”, and keep going!

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