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How many plans can you really have?

At a workshop I led many years ago, we looked at the strategic processes of the business, i.e. the processes that are in place to set the direction of the business. One participant after another pasted their notes on the construction paper I had stretched along the wall. When they were finished, we had a whole wall full of a happy mix of activities and results, such as plans and other governing documents.

After that, I led the process of structuring and asking the critical questions along the way. After a while it was clear to me that here among the patches there must be about twenty different documents that would in different ways govern the business. They were alternately called plans, programmes, directives and so on. I saw that this was probably the source of their ambiguity.

I picked one by one of the notes that were plans or similar. I started asking about the details of each of them. What do they mean, who owns the document, how comprehensive is it, what does it contain and so on?

Answers sometimes came quickly where it was clear, but most of the time people looked more at each other to get answers to all the questions. Nobody really knew how it was.

It turned out that they were not in control of their own plans, programmes and so on. Someone somewhere in the organisation created these, but there was little consensus on what they governed and how they related to the others. It was probably the case that as time went on, someone in good faith came to the conclusion that a “plan” was needed to steer something. But others clearly didn’t care that these plans existed, so it was more work to create them than to actually make them useful.

When we went on to talk about how these plans related to each other, the confusion was total. They could not answer which plan governed what and how they related to the others. There was clearly no agreement. No wonder they didn’t think it was working properly either. – No, this is not the way to have it, I said, and the others agreed. I further said that they needed to bring structure to their strategic guiding and supporting documents if it was ever to focus on the right things.

Said and done, we moved on to the next session to create order. 60% of the plans went out the window. The parts of these documents that were deemed important were transferred to other documents instead. The work was much appreciated and gave them a whole new clarity on the ways they really manage their business. They now felt that they had a clear understanding of what governed what in their business.

After chewing through document after document, responding to my seemingly never-ending quest for clarity, I saw the look of clarity shining in their eyes.

Helen, who was the manager of the business, was happy, I knew that. But when I didn’t give an inch in my quest for clarity, but kept following up every evasive or vague answer with new questions, I hear her exclaim in sheer frustration at not having the answers, “Damn, Matts, you’re a pain in the ass!”.

Of course I was. Bringing order to chaos is not easy or painless. It is hard to have to examine oneself, having been comfortably unclear for many years. However, the result is worth it. Helen was not upset with me but with their own inability to be clear. Through her work, she became one of the great advocates of continuous improvement and made a great contribution to the upliftment of the business.

What does it look like at your place? Do you have an unclear structure and is it unclear what controls what? Do you know how the various plans, programmes, or whatever you call them, are connected?

Don’t forget that you also have to be ‘difficult’ to work out how you really want things to work. If you are not “difficult”, you will not get the answers that will help you to think ahead and solve the problems and issues you see in your business.

Have a nice and efficient week,