Is planning an excuse for inadequacy?

Have you ever joined a company that has been in its third, or even second, year of its five-year plan?

Personally I have never experienced that situation, although I have been asked on numerous occasions to produce a five-year plan. As a matter of fact, I have never experienced the second year of my own five-year plan, because before I got to the second year I was always asked to do another five-year plan.

Some erudite person once said, “Make a plan then work the plan.” An even more erudite person in the shape of a Chief of the Imperial German General Staff, one General Helmut Von Moltke, said “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Incidentally, this very able soldier was assigned to implement the Schlieffen Plan. He knew the scheme was doomed to failure but was obliged to work it all the same. (Sound familiar?)

What seems to be the problem is that plans become obsolete with shifting opposing forces. The computer industry is one of the most volatile of all industries, with more shifting sands and wandering winds than even the entertainment industry. Thus it would seem useless for any computer company to plan for five years – but they do. If we examine a Plan, obviously it should be based on the latest information and no doubt should be structured so that instant modifications can be made. But if you can change the Plan, this rather implies they should be good for only the time in between changes.

Luck or intertia

Taking the logic a little further, we see that if you take the trouble to continue to change the Plan with each shift in the continuum then it is no longer a plan but rather a real-time situation, which you are dealing with at that very time.

Thus Plan becomes Present Action. Or maybe we should use Iterative Planning. This tends to suggest that only companies with leaders who know what the devil is going on in the market will be successful – although some succeed by just good luck or mammoth inertia.

An example of good luck is Microsoft. A good example of mammoth inertia is IBM, who almost lost it to PCs, and Eatons who did lose it because inertia is never endless. The computer industry is noted for its fierce blazes – there are masses of companies who have lit the market scene only to cool rapidly to a dull mound of ashes. Why? Well maybe they planned.

Masking incompetence

Maybe the vice-presidents never asked the ground troops how the battle was raging and kept working the plan. As a matter of interest, when was the last time your vice-president of marketing spent time with the field sales force – and I mean real time, not at a sales meeting, not some moments at a fancy party nor at a sales-do in the Islands?

Planning has become something to hide incompetence, if you are an incompetent executive you can impress by planning. Such activity successfully dulls the big bosses’ mind so that they do not see their senior managers as market dullards. They see them as assets because “He plans,” or “She has a five year plan.”

Some of the most chilling words one can hear in a dying company are “We must get a new plan.” What one should really hear is “What the hell are we doing wrong?” or “Why do our products lag our competition?”

One of the most ridiculous situations I ever encountered was the instructions issued to the sales people to submit a report each week detailing their sales, leads, projected sales and a host of other things (thereby reducing their time in the field considerably) so the company could plan. The reason for the new plan? Declining sales!

While being an asinine solution to a very real problem it also omitted the very thing it should have covered. What was omitted was a simple question to the sales force – “Why do you think our sales are falling?” If you are currently planning, you may have found a nice fuzzy warm job, but maybe you should check out their relevancy to the real world.

Robinson has been involved with high-tech Canadian start-up companies