You Call That a Plan

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What is 562 pages long and calls for more planning and studies?

A failed opportunity. Let me explain.

I recently reviewed a 562 page long comprehensive plan. And to answer the obvious question, I didn’t do it because I was bored. In fact, I did it because I wanted to answer a question one of my friends posed while we met for coffee a few weeks ago. His question: “Why does it seem like our city has no plan, no vision?”

It was a reasonable question that peaked my curiosity. Over the course of the conversation we agreed that the City’s plan and vision were supposed to be what was in its comprehensive plan.

So, not long after sipping the last of my mocha, I was online and digging into that city’s 562 page comprehensive plan. The plan was both exhaustive and exhausting. So what did I find? Five problems that commonly plague the plans I see communities create.

With bowl games and the playoffs on my mind, I’ve put a football spin on each problem:

  1. The False Start. Who really has the time to read a 562 page document to understand where the direction a community is going? No one. That’s the problem. No elected official, staffer or planner is ever going to read, memorize and follow up on everything in a plan that long. Worse yet, it’s inevitable that a plan that long contradicts itself. Bottom line is the plan already committed a foul before it ran its first play from scrimmage. There is a reason everyone wants to read an executive summary of a long plan. That’s the bandwidth the average person has for digesting what the goal is, what the strategies are and what the outcomes should be. If that is the case, are the other 500+ pages really necessary?
  2. What’s the Play Coach?  Picture a quarterback in the huddle desperately going over a 562 page chart on his wrist band (it’s painful enough to watch when it’s just a simple flip sheet). So then how is a 562 page document supposed to be distilled into a crisp “vision” that can be shared with city employees, citizens and businesses so the priorities and future vision for the community are clear? It’s nearly impossible. When the ‘playbook’ is too long and the offense too complex to run efficiently, the result is a failure to get a first down let alone cross the goal line. I’ve seen good football coaches (think Mike Holmgren) take some grief for scripting the first 20(ish) plays from scrimmage, but when it comes to following up a comprehensive community plan with action – such a script is a must have.
  3. Team Captains. What happens when everyone is responsible but no one is in charge? At best, nothing. At worse, chaos. Communities have thinned their staffs over the last decade and they have smaller rosters of team members that are playing multiple positions. Communities like this need ‘team captains’ in charge of acting on the plan, but even more importantly the team captains need the time and authority to focus first on plan implementation. When this doesn’t happen the plan becomes just another document lost in the background noise of the daily grind.
  4. Free Agency Failures.  My guess is that a 562 page plan didn’t come by the cheap. I’ve yet to ask my friend what the plan cost them, but in my experience I’ve seen communities spend $100,000 on a consultant and assign 1-3 staff people to a process involving a less extensive plan that this one. Between fully burdened staff and consultants, it’s reasonable to assume the plan cost in the neighborhood of $200,000 – $250,000. Spending this kind of money on a plan that doesn’t create action is like giving a free agent guaranteed money only to cut them before the end of preseason. As the Boomer (Chris Berman, ESPN) would say, “Whoooop!”
  5. Diagnosing the Game Film.  Let’s go over a few ‘plays’ from the plan, as I want to call attention to some X’s (goals) and O’s (objectives/strategies). In one of the plan’s chapters, I found six goals and roughly two dozen objectives. However, six of those objectives specifically called for completion of another plan or a study. Six! Now imagine if each of the other ten chapters followed this framework (hint: most did). The result is a plan that calls for another 60+ plans or studies.  I can hear Steve Raible, the voice of the Seattle Seahawks, in my head, “Holy Catfish!” Even if each additional plan or study cost a mere $20,000 in either staff time or consultant fees, the result would be over $1.2 million in more planning and studies. It’s no wonder many small to medium sized cities struggle to find the money and resources to create a plan then begin to implement the plan.

I want to make it clear that I am not anti-planning. I’m pro-planning. However, a plan without strategy and deliberate implementation is just an ordinary document.

The most successful plans I’ve seen set forth a clear and concise set of actions that can be implemented by identified team captains who have the capacity and authority to take action.

A great plan can’t be measured by how long it is – it must be measured by how much it accomplishes.

Want another example, read our story: “The Tale of Two Cities”

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