Knowing & Doing Aren’t the Same

For the last two decades I’ve worked around the country with companies, organizations and communities, seeing all forms of strategic planning in many phases of its development and implementation.  I’ve also seen strategic plans get more and more complex and take longer and longer to create.

The length and complexity of these plans stems from a desire to want more information to guide strategic decisions as well as to want to analyze information better and more thoroughly than your competition (a subjective assumption).

Yet as more information is available and analyzed, far too many of these strategic plans appear (and are) lifeless, impractical and wasted.  But why?

Knowing & Doing Aren’t the Same

As a dad of three I’m often reminding my kids to do things, which means I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I know” to which I’ve quipped “Knowing and doing are two different things.”

Before I even finish there is a part of me that winces at having said such a ‘dad-like-thing’ but the truth is my response is less a reflection of being a dad and more a reflection of being a consultant in today’s world.  Like my kids, most people fundamentally know what to do, but they are often distracted from taking action either by the immediacy of something else that’s grabbed their attention or they are waiting for more information.

Albert Einstein is attributed to having said, “Information is not knowledge.”

And this problem is only getting worse as the daily bombardment of information through every device and from every screen raises our expectation that a little more information won’t hurt and will actually make it easier to take action.  It’s an assumption that the next piece of information may be so much better than what we have, we must wait.

Thus this access to so much information that is so frequently refreshing (updating, revising) is now treated as a source of knowledge, creating an illusion that with knowledge of the next piece of information we can somehow take more decisive and successful action.

Knowledge is More than Information

Unfortunately knowledge is more than mere abundance and availability of information.  Knowledge involves experience (good and bad), ranking (how we measure and weigh information), instincts/intuition, imagination and other processes that are functions of taking action (a/k/a doing).  Thus, the result of seeking more and more information because it is (or may be) available too often leads to the same problem of inaction that plagues my kids – distraction and postponement.

This is not to say that data and information can’t be valuable to a decision, but the expectation that more data and information will always lead to an even better decision has a limit.

3 Tips for Action

Here are three tips to encourage action:

  1. Do limit the analysis of data and information to that which is most relevant to your goals and objectives.  Don’t rely on data that is too historic or unverifiable.
  2. Create a plan that guides your strategic decisions and actions for the next 3-5 years.  Don’t create a plan for purposes of creating a plan.
  3. Assume that your plan will need to be adjusted as new information is available or markets change.  Don’t fall into the trap of creating an entirely new plan every time something changes.

 

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.

Business Optimism on the Rise

The 2017 JP Morgan Chase Business Leaders Outlook Report reflects growing optimism among executives from small and mid-sized businesses.

Key takeaways from the report:

  • 80% of middle market executives are optimistic about the U.S. economy (up from 39% in 2016)
  • 62% of small business owners are optimistic about the U.S. economy (up from 43% a year ago)
  • 76% of middle market executives and 61% of small businesses expect the new administration to have a positive impact on their business
  • Reducing regulations and lowering taxes were cited as the top two areas executives felt need to be focused on to positively impact the U.S. economy and their business
  • 71% of middle market executives plan to increase employee compensation this year (up 10 percentage points from a year ago)
  • 57%  of middle market executives plan to increase their workforce (up 8 points from last year)

Go to the Report

Sources: JP Morgan Chase & IndustryWeek.com

Smart Goals Aren’t Always So Smart

I remember my first strategic planning process like it was yesterday.  The direction I got from my manager was:

  1. Start a planning process
  2. Get your group to agree on a vision
  3. Create SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely)
  4. Identify the action you’ll take to achieve the goals
  5. End with consensus

I had been worried, dreading the need to develop a strategic plan.  But, in what my manager shared with me I found hope.  It seemed easy enough and it was.  And after that first plan was done. . .I felt comfortable.  There was even a satisfaction that accomplishing the plan’s goals wouldn’t be too hard.

Fast forward to today.  I have a very different perspective on what embodies “SMART” goals.

It’s time to create ambitious goals, not attainable goals

Why?  Because when an organization puts together a plan with “attainable” goals, it often artificially limits what the organization can accomplish.  Attainable sets the tone by saying goals should be “within reach” or “achievable” which stands in contrast to the intensity typically associated with the vision an organization first establishes at the outset of the strategic planning process.

Attainable is the small fish sitting in a river waiting for food to be carried to it.  Is it strategic?  Sure. . .  Is it certain?  Yes. . .  But is the fish achieving more than basic survival?  No. . .

Attainable is the small fish sitting in a river waiting for food to be carried to it.  Is it strategic?  Sure, the fish has chosen to save energy and capitalize on what can be seen.  Is it certain?  Yes, inevitably food will come downstream.  But is the fish achieving more than basic survival?  No, the fish isn’t taking any risk to find a better source of food and pursue its vision of being the “big fish” someday.

The alternative goals are those that are ambitious.  Meaning they require greater effort and ability to be successful, but nonetheless can still be successful.

The bottom line is this: focusing on attainable goals is still a strategic decision, but its a strategy that focuses on accomplishing obvious outcomes that would be nearly impossible not to reach.  That’s great news for the individuals charged with being responsible for implementation.  However, its bad new for growth.

It’s time to stop being ‘real’ and start being ‘transformative’

Judging goals on a criteria of “realistic” also artificially limits what can be accomplished.  Because the opposite of reality is fantasy.  And fantasies are categorized in our minds as wishes and falsehoods, making the use of imagination a bad thing.  As soon as someone says, “the reality is that this will be difficult. . .” in a strategy session, a group will navigate away from talking about ambitious goals that require more intense analysis and resources.

Viewing strategy and goal setting through the lens of  reality therefore becomes an opportunity to back down from a challenge.  In fact it’s the last opportunity to make a U-turn in the planning process and return to a place of comfort.

So what does a more successful approach look like?

In a strategy session with a board of directors that were also the organizations main investors, I asked, “What would make you feel better as a director and investor.  An organization that hits every goal as if running up the score or one that fails to accomplish every goal but accomplishes something that is transformative?”

The answer was clear to those directors.  The purpose of the organization was to be transformative and impactful.  In that context they had to redefine what success would look like as they developed their plan.   Success couldn’t be about measuring and accomplishing every goal in the plan.  Instead, it had to be about realizing their vision to be something different down the road.

To make that happen, being ‘realistic’ meant having a discussion about risks, resources and a range of results as opposed to dismissing an aggressive, ambitious goal as being a fantasy because it’s cutting edge, innovative or imaginative.

Redefining S.M.A.R.T. Goals

If I were to redefine S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely) goals, here’s what it would look like:

S – Straightforward (understandable; unambiguous; plain-spoken)

– Maturity (due date; time when fully developed; period in which obligation to perform has come due)

A – Ambitious (aggressive; requiring greater effort and ability)

R – Recognizable (easily identified by those responsible for outcomes)

T – Transformative (a discernible change; something different than the present)