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Why reality usually has nothing to do with plans

Mar 21, 2010 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Last week this column looked at two words: Event and Process. This week I want to engage you in a discussion about two more: PLAN and REALITY.

The need to think about these words came to me on a recent flight. Anyone who has flown on a commercial flight will be familiar with the in-flight safety/emergency demo that is mandatory in air travel. Passengers must be told the various emergency procedures and where the exits are. They must be shown how to operate the oxygen masks and how to exit the plane if it lands on water.

All very good stuff. Except when you imagine what actually happens if a plane crashes. If an aircraft is plunging to the ground or the sea, ask yourself: are you really going to remember a single thing that you were told, when everyone is screaming all around you, when your own mind is utterly clouded by terror, when all you can think about is imminent death? I really doubt it. The airline safety talk is a plan, and it is a plan conveyed to sober and subdued minds. The mind that will have to deal with the actual event, if it happens, will be anything but subdued.

One of my favourite (unattributed) quotations: “Every boxer has a plan – until he takes the first punch in the face.” It is very easy to make detailed plans in the comfort of the training room, or the conference hall, or the boardroom. It is another matter altogether to adhere to the plan in the throes of battle or during the mayhem of a market meltdown.

Those airplane safety lectures may be necessary, because there is a possibility one of the things you remember may save your life (though you are certainly not going to follow the step-by-step procedure to the letter when the plane’s fuselage is rupturing). Most people will just hang on to their seats and scream and pray.

What is striking, however, is how much emphasis people and organisations give to detailed planning, both personal and corporate. So tell me: how many of the plans you made for your life ten or twenty years ago came to pass? Did you imagine you would be where you are today, doing what you do, with these people around you? If the details of your plans indeed came to fruition, all I can say is that your ambitions and scenarios must have been very modest indeed.

I have been a strategy advisor for more than two decades now, and I conclude this: the reality of life is generally nothing like the plan. When we sit down to plan something, we seem to put on some strange spectacles: ones through which the world looks straightforward and predictable; where people do what they’re supposed to and when they’re supposed to do it; where events don’t just happen out of the blue; where everything can be boiled down to a few numbers and tolerance limits.

It is no wonder that companies seem to want to do their strategic planning next to mountains and lakes and oceans. They select serene and placid places that are nothing like their real operating environment. Do your planning in places that are noisy, chaotic and tumultuous, I say: your thoughts are likely to be more reflective of modern business reality.

Life is generally nothing like what the plans say. Look at the global events of 2008, when a credit crunch sparked off a worldwide recession. It would be a salutary experience to go back to any plan you devised for your company around 2007. At that time, everyone was forecasting double-digit revenue and profit growth; booming incomes and dividends; many new investments and locations.

Well, the global financial markets had other plans. And so did Kenya’s politicians. In the end, companies went into a downward sales plunge and were forced to hold salaries, bonuses and dividends and put off investment plans.

As in the case of the airplane safety talk, we do need to plan. We must, however, be more realistic about our planning. Predicting the future, influenced as it is by so many stochastic variables, is a fool’s errand. Rather than create detailed and complex plans what individuals and organisations should be doing is developing the things that actually help them to deal with the unforeseen: attitudes, values, character and personality.

We are going to be caught off-guard many times in our lives. We are going to be sent tumbling repeatedly. What matters is not whether you saw it coming, but whether you can deal with it when it does. The ability to stay calm is more important than the ability to foresee. Resilience of spirit is of more use than a voluminous document. For companies, strategy is more about corporate personality: unity of purpose and a sense of togetherness; strong market positioning; intangible, non-economic bonds with customers.

Listen to Woody Allen: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your future plans.”

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