Planning Has Gone to the Birds

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. Must be comprehensive, because what’s the point of planning, if not to be exceptionally thorough
  2. 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
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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:

  1. Avoid the trap of “comprehensive” planning.  Refocus the planning process develop a strategy that’s appropriate, actionable, and adaptable.
  2. 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.
  3. 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



A Bubble or some Bubbly?

A Bubble or some Bubbly?  That is a fair question going through the minds of some in Washington State right now.

Bubbly – Like Champagne is a Good Thing

The popping of the cork on a bottle of champagne followed by those fizzy bubbles are symbolic representations of celebration and success!

And Washington State’s economy appears to be raising a big glass of the bubbly these days.  In 2016 wages in Washington State rose 4.8%, accounting for the largest year over year increase since 2007.  The State’s unemployment figures for May 2017 dropped to 4.5% from 5.6% just a year ago.  And for the second year in a row, Seattle leads the country in the number of cranes (58 cranes – 60% more than any other US city) – a sign that typically points to a booming economy.  Add to this, has ranked Washington’s economy #1 in the US based on an assessment of 27 economic factors.  And CNBC concurs, ranking Washington as the best state for business in the US.

Is there a Bubble?  (that ol’ Bearer of Bad News)

But despite all to celebrate in Washington’s economy, there is room to take pause.  Some data indicates some very negative trends and recent company announcements point to some small earthquakes within key industries that are drivers of the state’s economy.

For example, state data should that wage growth has primarily been limited to to King (Seattle) and Snohomish (Everett) counties, leaving the balance of the state flat or dropping.  Moreover, nearly 1/5th of Washington’s counties (7 out of 39) have unemployment rates over 7% with six more hoovering just shy of that mark.  And even in the prosperous Seattle metro, a count in late May found more than 11,000 homeless in the area – a significant number of which that are employed.  In four years, the median cost of housing in the state has jumped 37% to over $300,000 (driven by price pressures in the metro counties) – a great thing if you own a house, but bad if you don’t.

Recently announced layoffs and moves at Boeing and Microsoft – including 125 engineers tied to production of Microsoft’s surface and hundreds of Boeing’s shared services group being relocated to a Mesa, AZ facility – are just some of the more visible ‘adjustments’ happening in the market.


Nothing is definitive at this time, but if you’re investing and developing in the Northwest (especially Seattle), you should give caution to whether the next pop you hear is the opening of another bottle of the bubbly or the air releasing from booming growth adjusting to underlying market factors.

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.

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)

Is it Time to Draw a Line in the Sand?

Have you recently said or thought any of the following?  Enough!  Now what?  Don’t they get it?  Why can’t this be simple?  Is there no common sense?

You’re not alone.  Many businesses, communities and organizations are saying the same thing and saying it often.  But the one question not often asked is “how do I/we change it?”

Sonya Parker wrote, “I will no longer accept apologies from you.  I will only accept action.”

If you’re ready to explore the ‘how’ then your ready for our help.

We work with a wide range of clients from the real estate developer that needs to push forward stalled permits to a community that is ready to move beyond planning its vision to building its future to the organization that needs to set higher value goals to invigorate a declining and divesting membership.

Toyer Strategic Consulting understands the strategies and implementation necessary to push permits without being pushy, transform planning into project management and switch gears from goal setting to goals scored.  We are a company that focuses on action.

Are you ready to draw a line in the sand?