Understanding How City Plans Fail

In my experience a City’s successful implementation of a plan depends greatly upon a their reaction to and investment in the actual elements of the plan.  For successful implementation to occur, a city must be mindful of the tendency for its performance to ‘default’ to status quo (generalization and avoidance), substitution (solving a less complex problem) or surrogation (substituting a performance measure for goal attainment).

Status Quo

Status Quo appears most typically in the forms of generalization and avoidance:


Generalization occurs when a plan is accepted or adopted at the Council level, but not integrated into the working operations of the city. Plan implementation may be added to council, management and department agendas, but on-going engagement in discussing both the plan and its implementation gets almost exclusively focused on existing daily operations or is skipped due to a lack of time spent on other matters. This tendency to generalize the meaning of ‘implement the plan’ leads away from the strategic discussions, decisions and actions required for real plan implementation. Drawing a comparison to small business, it’s like the owner always putting “do marketing” on their task list without a direction (e.g. promoting a special off), specific strategies (e.g. add content to social media, purchase radio spots) or a process of reviewing and measuring outcomes.

The result of this generalization is either (a) an abandonment of the plan (often arising from the feeling that the plan is too big) or (b) a sense that the plan is so comprehensive and well documented that it’s enactment is naturally occurring without an on-going focus (what we can only assume must be an evolutionary product of the common planner reference that a plan is a ‘living, breathing document’).

However, the truth is that generalization results in one outcome: inaction. The lack of on-going conversations at council, management and department levels about the specifics of how the plan and strategy are being implemented, the progress towards implementation, and the measurement of the results and adjustment of strategy leads to deprioritizing the importance of the plan and replacement by more pressing, emerging matters.

It’s a false expectation for a Council or Manager to assume that a broad directive of ‘implement the plan’ without frequent interfacing is enough for a department or individual to determine the who, what, how and why for each plan element that must be accomplished in additional to current operational responsibilities.

 TIP:  Hold regular implementation conversations and (at least) an annual workshop or retreat to make strategic decisions on assigning responsibility, monitoring progress, adjusting strategies, and evaluating success.


Avoidance occurs when a plan is accepted or adopted at the Council level, but due to the city’s present budget and general financial policy, Council and management avoid discussing, recommending, prioritizing and appropriating adequate resources (staff time, programmatic funding, etc.) to carry out the work.

This tendency is to avoid financial decisions (during and after budget adoption) while generally accepting that the community has the staff and financial resources to (at least) begin to implementation of the plan is a manifestation of the general notion that there are inefficiencies or underutilized city resources that will somehow adapt to carry out this responsibility.

The truth is that most cities have focused such great attention in recent years toward controlling expenses to limit property tax increases that existing resources are strained and often less efficient. From combining jobs and duties to asking departments annually to cut a % of their budget but maintain a similar level of service has made government ‘leaner’ but it’s also created an expectation that implementing new plans, strategies and services can be accomplished within existing operations and using existing resources.

It’s a false expectation to assume that successful implementation of a new strategic plan will occur without evaluating the resources (staff, money, etc.) required to succeed.

TIP:  Regularly discuss the delivery of services and allocation of resources to make more strategic decisions that support the plan’s implementation and the city’s broader priorities of government[i],[ii].


Substitution is defined as the act of replacing a more complex element of the plan with an easier action that is rationalized as having successfully met objective.  This occurs as follows:

Cities tend to respond best to emerging issues, emergencies, questions and requests. This ‘fighting fires’ approach is justified because it feels production and it can be rationalizing (subconsciously or not) as being related to or fulfilling one or more of the elements within a work plan.  Substitution takes the place of elements within the plan and is generally (at all levels) accepted as crossing that item off the list.  In practice this may look like the following situation.

The local newspaper starts a quarterly advertorial insert called “The Progress Edition” featuring local business stories and a significant amount of advertising.  The city responds by purchasing a year’s worth of ad space.  The purchase may be good for the city, the newspaper and the community, but the decision is often made by rationalizing the outcome as promoting economic development or marketing the city.  This can become a substitution for the actual marketing elements of the plan and be wrongly counted as fulfilling all or a portion of those associated plan goals.

The truth is that not all city actions can or should be accounted for as actions related to adopted strategic plans. While these actions may benefit the city and community, their replacement (substitution) of more complex and resource intense plan elements won’t ultimately move the city closer to the achieving the established plan goals.

It’s a false expectation that every city action is an extension of the strategies within an adopted strategic plan.

TIP:  Allocate resources to carry out the plan’s implementation and determine how long-term projects will be sustained in the face of both daily operations and emerging requests for resources.


Surrogation happens when the measurement of a goal is interpreted (represented) as the goal.  A common example of this as applied to city operations would involve the goal of high customer satisfaction in the planning department where the speed (# of days) by which building permits are issued comes to singularly represent customer satisfaction.

In the context of implementing a strategic plan, surrogation is a method for simplifying plan implementation by reducing the scope of the strategy to either fit within a budget limitation or to avoid (revolt against) broader systemic change.

The truth is that the desire to prove progress and accomplishment drive a tendency to use performance measures (especially those that are positive) to not just represent how a goal is being achieved, but that the performance measure (if good) is the achievement of the goal. This is misleading and results in a failure to accomplish more meaningful, long term results.  Returning to the example from above, customer satisfaction with a planning department can neither be accomplished nor measured solely by the timely issuance of permits as such measurements may not reflect the difficulty in applying for the permit, the cost of the permit or the experience with permit related inspections.

Further, relying on the performance measures as the goal can lead to crazy interpretations of the performance measure, including (for example) that the timely issuance of permits should only measure how long the jurisdiction took to issue the permit, not how long the overall process took.  The city may have performed much worse when the latter was considered because the city frequently stopped the clock to seek additional information from the applicant.

It’s a false expectation to assume that a single performance measure can accurately represent achievement of a goal and the application of such is an invitation for surrogation to promote a false sense of achievement.

TIP:  Cities should adopt and evaluate performance measures, but such measures of progress and performance should not be singularly focused nor reflect the sole means of determining goal satisfaction.


[i] Washington State enacted a successful and innovative priorities in government budgeting approach in 2002 under former Governor Gary Locke (background: https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/priorities-government-budgeting)

[ii] For more details, see also The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson

[iii] Substitution as referred to herein is a more simplistic view of what’s known as “attribute substitution”

Plan for Success in 2019

Soon summer will be over and you’ll start planning your annual executive, council or organization retreat.  You’ll analyze your business, organization or community and carefully put together a budget and a plan for 2019.

But, is planning the same way you did last year going to yield better results?

Yes, if you avoid these common mistakes:

  1. Too Much Optimism. No one wants to be negative. And unless self appointed to the role of ‘contrarian’ no employee, board member or council person wants that title. But, if you go through a planning process where none of your conversations dive into uncomfortable territory or produced thoughtful disagreement, then you’ve got problems. Inevitably there are some sacred cows holding you back. To be truly successful, both the good and the bad have to be on the table and everyone has to be empowered and prepared to state the obvious. No pain, no gain.
  2. Cruise Control.  Like comfy pants that make you feel good or cruise control in your car, goal setting can default to what’s easy, reliable or comfortable.  But, comfortable doesn’t get you better, bigger or bolder. This year it’s time to stretch.  Set goals that you may not accomplish, but still make you look good for trying.
  3. Rephrase, Rearrange, Repeat. Your 2019 plan shouldn’t be an extension of your 2018 plan, which was an extension of your 2017 plan? When you’re planning, you should be able to look back at the plans from the last several years and see that your not stuck in the same spot.  This can help the discussion as you can often see that while you may have fallen short of a goal last year, you’ve still grown.
  4. Your Budget is Not Your Plan. Do you need a plan? Yes. Do you need a budget? Absolutely. Is a budget a plan? Not even close.  Budgets are based on a conservative picture of what could happen.  And budgets can be inflexible.  By contrast, plans shouldn’t be as conservative and they should be adaptable to changing conditions.  Tracking a line item budget month to month doesn’t measure progress, it measures restraint.

Want to accelerate your growth next year?  Contact us to facilitate your next company, organization or community retreat.

Is Planning Risky?

We all know (or are at least told) that planning is necessary critical to success.  However, what we aren’t often told is how risky planning, particularly strategic planning, can be.  So before you go all-in on your next planning exercise, here are four risks you want to avoid:

  1. There is a different between consensus and conceding.  The former is about building agreement and recognition while the latter is associated with surrender.  These terms are very similar in nature, but one is clearly what you’re aiming to achieve.  One example of this is when a stakeholder process, which is about seeking input, turns into the steering committee.  In this example, either a vocal minority or an overwhelming group dominate the discussion, narrow the focus of the plan and (often) assume a decision making role.  The outcome is a plan that may not only be narrow in scope, but also highly ineffective at addressing  the future as it happens to you.
  2. Consensus isn’t always first.  Often times when planning, groups feel a need to find consensus on everything that goes into the plan.  Not only can this bog down the planning process, it also fails to recognize that a plan is in essence a “living” document.  It has to provide guidance over time, which necessitates considering new information and making adjustments along the way.  As a business (or community) you never want someone to say, we decided when we did the plan to do “x” so that is what we have to do.  That kind of failure to strategically adjust course and recreate consensus can become a ticking bomb.
  3. Wishful thinking is not effective planning.  A plan should not be a wish list.  However, communities, businesses and even non-profits often engage in the planning process because they want to be like another community, business or non-profit.  In this context the want is really a wish – much the same as when I buy a lottery ticket.  So unless you have the same assets, talent and time, it is an unlikely proposition you’ll be exactly like them.  This does not however negate the fact you can use them as a benchmark or look at them for best practices.
  4. More words = more worries.  A plan is not a writing contest, it’s a foundation for the future.  Too often we see plans that have introduction, history and the “how the plan was created” elements that when complete are longer than the plan itself.  While these provide context, they aren’t the plan nor are they critical to the plan’s implementation.  These truly should be a summary.  You shouldn’t pay for a consultant to learn about your business or community and then write you an essay to show you how much of that they’ve retained.

Got the To-Do List Blues?

You’ve worked hard and reached the end of your day, but your to-do list hasn’t budged.

Were you distracted?  Maybe.  Too many fires to put out?  It’s possible.

But if you want to really understand what happened and why you didn’t accomplish much, you may need to look deeper.  According to psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, your day may have succumbed to a cognitive bias called the “planning fallacy.”

What is it?  It’s when your brain thinks you more capable than you are, tricking you into not accounting for how long things will actually take you.

A Business Insider article written by Shana Lebowitz on April 23rd explains.

Want to Succeed? Ditch the Stakeholders!

If I had a dollar for every time I saw a community bring together a group of “stakeholders” I’d be comfortably retired and if I had a second dollar for every stakeholder process that ended without an action, I’d be on one of Fortune Magazine’s money lists.

Now before you finishing lighting your torch and locating your pitchfork, let me explain.

Good Intentions Don’t Spark Action

The intent behind stakeholder committees/groups is very laudable: involve the public in a process, educate them on a challenge or opportunity, record their input and diffuse potential objections.

But most stakeholder processes today are generally failures.  They are poorly attended, poorly managed and orchestrated to be very limited in scope.  Stakeholders are usually limited to a position of review and respond – completely missing the opportunity to re-imagine processes and plans, rewrite strategies and goals, and resolve to take real actions.

This is why even out of the best plan or idea. . .stakeholders fade away and big ideas never materialize into results.

The Wrong Audience

I have come to believe that stakeholders may be the wrong audience.  Unlike investors or shareholders, they typically are not personally vested in an outcome.  Instead, by definition, a stakeholder is someone with an interest or concern in something.

This is the problem.  Having an interest or a concern doesn’t often merit action.  I’m interested in history.  I like to read about it, I like to watch programs about it.  I’ll even occasionally reference it.  But, my interest alone doesn’t compel me to take action.  For example, I am fascinated by presidential biographies, but at age 40 I just visited my first one and it is only an hour drive away from where I live.

A stakeholder is no different.  They are curious, they may have a question about the topic and they may want to offer an opinion.  But they generally have no desire to be responsible for the outcome.

A New Concept for Results: Coalitions

I believe it’s time to gather fewer stakeholders and instead build more coalitions.  It’s time to move away from asking people to serve in an “advisory” capacity and ask them at the outset to serve in an “achievement” role.  And even more importantly, put them in a role where their recommendations carry some actual weight in not only creating the plan, but initiating the action.

My only worry is that the term coalitions too often creates a negative reaction or visual depiction of being either “activism” or “political action” or, in rare cases, “extremism.”

However, we need to remember that real coalitions are far from this perception.  A coalition is simply individuals or groups that, in their own self-interest, cooperate in joint action.  The keywords in that sentence being “cooperate” and “action.”

What do you think?