Given my title, I already know what you’re thinking: “Planning has gone to the birds, huh?” “Have you lost your mind Toyer?” “What is your beef with planning?”
Answers (in reverse order to your questions): I don’t have anything against planning, but I am concerned about how we are planning. No, I’ve not lost my mind. Yes, this is a story about planning and birds. Intrigued? Then read on.
Last week I was a small community’s economic development plan while my wife was taking down a wreath on the front door of our house in the Midwest. My wife loves to decorate for every holiday, change in season, or occasion that Hobby Lobby says exists, buying a new wreath to hang on the front door. I never knew so many wreathes exist!
The problem develops every April when birds are looking to build nests and an unsuspecting bird family thinks the wreath is a great spot to build their nest. But after several years of seeing this happen, I have begun to believe there’s something wrong with the birds’ planning process.
In fact, what I’ve seen on my porch combined with what I see regular when I sit down to review plans has convinced me planning has a problem and it’s not just a bird thing.
But, sticking with the story, imagine if birds knew about modern planning and related processes like SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) assessments. If they did, would they not figure out that the wreath was a lousy location for their next home?
Problems with SWOT
Let’s be the birds for a minute. The wreath resembles a snag of brush or tangle of tree. It’s tucked back from the open elements and, at least in appearance, offers a higher level of protection from the severe thunderstorms and daily wind that adjacent foliage does not. And being perched higher than much of the area around with a roof above and a wall to one side, the area to be watched for approaching predators is greatly reduced. Strengths.
But on the downside, the location is a further from their conveniences (grass, flowers and trees where food is) and being more in the shade means the days and nights will be cooler. Weakness.
As far as the design of the nest goes, there’s a strong likelihood that building the nest here will require less effort, fewer resources and a shorter time frame for construction, giving the birds more time to do other bird things. Opportunity.
Now about the threats. (Head Scratch) None, because the strengths kind of outweigh the weaknesses and everything seems to be otherwise perfect. Right?
Unfortunately no. Here’s what goes wrong for the birds:
Unless you’ve experienced the weather in this location you wouldn’t know that the prevailing winds come from the west, catching the north corner of the porch and swirling back toward the corner where the wreath is located. In fact, if they had observed this, they’d know the winds can circle so strongly that they lift the wreath up and drop it against the door like a old brass door knocker.
While we don’t use our front door often, we occasionally have a visitor or package delivered and the door must be opened. With higher Spring humidity swelling the door a touch, opening the door requires a bit more of a tug. As the door opens, this creates an action that causes the wreath to separate from the door like being pulled back in the seat of an accelerating car, but followed immediately by crashing back into the door like the car hitting a jersey barrier at 65.
Things have never gone well for the birds at this location. They wind up building and rebuilding the nest. And even when they’ve had eggs, they’ve rarely had any hatch.
This story highlights two of the biggest failures with SWOT in planning:
- Unacknowledged Unknowns. Most SWOTs fail to identify what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to as the “Unknown, Unknowns.” And while they are unknowns for a reason, they are also the blind spot from which “disruption” typically appears.
- Predispositions. The failure to anticipate unknown, unknowns is a matter of our being predisposed to see our surroundings a certain way as well as to value strengthens above weaknesses and threats. Added to the fact “Threats” are usually discussed last, further devalues the significance of considering what the worse things are that could happen to a plan.
Overcoming these obstacles requires more attention to “threats” and a willingness to accept a condition that something bad will happen. This requires strategies for the execution of a plan that frequently look for emerging threats and strategies that all plans to be adjusted timely.
But it’s not just flawed SWOT that is bringing down the nest.
Looking Deeper at Planning Predispositions
Planning has become part of life, literally. Liking brushing teeth. Both of which we aren’t necessarily done as frequently as they should be. Why?
We have made planning into an image of what we think a great plan is supposed to look and act like. In fact, we are convinced great plans:
- Must be comprehensive, because what’s the point of planning, if not to be exceptionally thorough
- And by comprehensive, we are certain planning must feature:
- Months of process and the involvement by groups, teams and/or committees of colleagues and/or stakeholders
- Plans need to be explained, so prefaces and forewords are inserted to describe past plans and how this plan was created
- History can’t be repeated so a description of everything prior to this plan’s creation is described ad nauseum to prove the “context” of the present is understood
- There must be lots of data. A full and complete regurgitation of historical and current information collected or quantified at the time of the plan whether it relates to data points the plan should measure going forward or not
In regards to data, I liken it to my middle school Algebra teacher in my head reminding me, “Show your work.” Because you can’t simply have the right answer, you have to demonstrate how you got the right answer. However, such a philosophy is to a degree correct, but taken to this extreme in planning, it’s a waste of time.
This vision we’ve created is thus often justified (wrongly) by assuming that “comprehensive” plans are like luxury cars: expensive because they look better, have more features, and impress others. But that doesn’t answer why we plan this way.
The deeper answer is that we have allowed “self” (both individually and collectively) to influence planning. In this context, “self” as a participant is not seen as a double-edge sword. While it brings diversity of thought, experience and opinion to the table, it also invites three dangerous influences to the party:
- Fear of judgement. Deep down we fear being judged. In planning, we/I fear that someone, sometime will read the plan and we/I want them to be impressed with the work we/I did. We/I want validation that the time and resources spent on planning were worth it. Conversely, we/I fear someone will read the plan and see a failure because [______] was left out.
- Pride and Ownership. Whether the motivation is pride or ownership (or the desire to leave a legacy), we/I want to be a part of creating something grand. This can influence planning as we/I start to view of the plan as the action or the accomplishment, and believing falsely that the plan is legacy we create (by the way, it’s usually not a great legacy when this is the thinking). In contrast the real legacy of planning is the movement of a business, organization or community closer to its vision – movement that takes place when goals of the plan are accomplished.
By the way, when I see a list of the planning participants in the first five pages of a plan, it’s a strong sign that this error has been made.
- The Naivety of Wishing. As we got older we had to reconcile the difference between needs and wants. But like the magic of Disney’s when we wish upon a star. . . our inner, raw optimism comes out too often in planning and we shift the focus of the plan towards wishful thinking. A process that leads to seeing the future of the business, organization or community as something that it cannot realistically become.
Planning is critical and necessary, but it’s become more of a commodity than a strategy. Like milk, it’s a so-called “staple” of our daily diet. Something we generally have to share with others. And if handled improperly or kept too long it goes bad.
Now is the time to refocus planning around three key elements:
- Avoid the trap of “comprehensive” planning. Refocus the planning process develop a strategy that’s appropriate, actionable, and adaptable.
- Respect real-time data and leave the irrelevant past behind. We are in a new world and historical data has limited value. Focus instead on how evaluate real-time information and the processes you need in place to adapt to current and emerging conditions.
- Set an expiration date and refresh or replace the plan. A plan is only good if you use it and all plans have a self life. Plans needs to include ways to evaluate and measure what is finished, processes to adjust the strategies and a reasonable time period for completion or replacement.
About the Author
David Toyer is the founder of Toyer Strategic Consulting and an entrepreneur, economic developer, land use adviser and recovering lobbyist with nearly two decades of experience turning ideas into finished projects. He’s also the creator of Toyer Framework™ – an approach to creating more efficient and effective economic development plans in communities 50,000 or less in population. For more information about David Toyer or Toyer Strategic Consulting, visit www.toyerstrategic.com.