“The plans you make are too small for you to live.” — David Whyte
Planning is perceived as essential to a successful and happy life. Letting things unfold is a notion that is not widely accepted particularly in organizations. Leaders plan the next steps in their career, their lives, and their schools.
Certainly, professionals need to plan: the public expects it and plans can focus effort. Defining and implementing strategies to gain control and to move events are the perspective leaders are supposed to have.
The process of planning has added a whole vocabulary to our language – a jargon both technocratic and impersonal. The language speaks of desired outcomes and strategic initiatives seemingly devoid of people, who are dehumanized to ‘stakeholders’, ‘constituents’, or ‘customers’. Real people seem removed from the events or they are viewed as objects or targets of strategies, tactics and systems. Numbers become more important than people as the process reeks of ‘bottom lines’, ‘bench marks’, ‘data-based decisions, or ‘measurables’.
The assumption is that by making plans, the world and the universe will respond as desired and that truth is found in metrics. We worship on the altar of metrics. Numbers, not people, seem to be the focus.
All managers plan, look at the worse case scenario, and try to consider all the ‘variables’. But people are not predictable variables. They have values, beliefs and principles that are beyond simple measurement. Plans based on linear, cause-and-effect logic wilt in the face of dynamic, self-renewing systems and people’s spirit. This raises the question about what can be done in addition to traditional planning in order to lead?
Life does not always play out according to our designs and templates. Data and control can fall short and there are unanticipated factors beyond our control. As poet Wislawa Szymborska said in her poem, The Turn of the Century:
Already too much has happened
that was not supposed to happen,
and what was to come
has yet to come.
Our instruments, technology, and computers still cannot forecast our organizational and social weather with certainty, and they certainly cannot foretell how people will relate and interact in the complex web of workplace relationships. Our ‘clocks’ and ‘weatherglasses’ are immune to the fields, forces, and energy of human beings and the heart, imagination, and beliefs they bring with them. Unanticipated consequences sprout without warning. The certainty and control are lost in the confluence of people’s lives and relationships.
A leader’s greatest asset is not the process of planning and analysis but working with people and applying their talent, imagination, and creativity. Living in the moment and being able to discern the dynamic forces at work are keys to successful leadership. Knowing when to move and when to stop, when to act and when to be still, when to be silent and when to talk are all intangibles that leaders need to understand. Breaking from or staying with a plan is also a significant decision for a leader to make.
As the old saying goes, “the best laid plans . . . .” often get derailed in the non-linear world in which we live. Plans sputter and flop. In this type of world improvising is a great asset. However, improvisation and leadership seem to be strange bedfellows. In a sense, improvisation is the Rodney Dangerfield of leadership – it gets no respect.
Rigidly sticking to plans in a forceful environment is a recipe for failure. Emotional, non-linear, non-quantifiable, and hidden forces derail the best of them. What is manifest is not the problem. What is emerging, what is around the bend in the road, is what creates the future and produces havoc for plans. Chaos and non-rationality prevail and are a part of all open social systems.
Sometimes we forget that people dedicated to principles, values, and ethics, not procedures, are responsble for success in a sometimes chaotic and dynamic world.