Planning: Value in the Gray Space

by Joe on September 14, 2010

Picture via cliff1066 cc and flickr

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower

The more I experience in business and leadership, the more I realize that planning is both worthless and invaluable.  Dwight D. Eisenhower said it best:  “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  While I don’t believe president Eisenhower is saying we shouldn’t bother planning, I do believe the statement does lend itself to viewing planning as a means of helping a team to learn the information necessary to execute and frequently adjust a project’s course.

President Eisenhower has created intentional gray space to allow his team to plan and adjust accordingly as seen fit as new information is gathered.  This shouldn’t mean that project managers outline every second and the minutia of a product.  I don’t think I am the only one that thinks my bathroom breaks should not be scheduled on a gantt chart!

As leaders we should build opportunities into projects that allow us to adjust course and allow our teams to innovate.  But that also does not mean we should allow operations to continue as if there is no plan.  Highlighting the large tasks and general outlines of tasks will help to reduce the ambiguity of a project and enable higher levels of innovation.  These opposing forces of rigidity and open space certainly creates a gray space  between planning activity that is seemingly useless and activity that matters.

Because of reasonable planning exercises, I have found myself more prepared to do battle and able to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time.

I’ve found three areas where I can embrace planning gray areas:
1. Vetting Financial plans:  Back of the napkin analysis is just as good as weeks worth of spreadsheet work, especially when we arrive at about the same result.
2. Long and medium term project plan development:  Embracing the gray areas while developing project plans allows for the insertion of relationship building and intention determination.
3. Assessing:  Allowing gray space in assessment of a new project, plan or measurable action allows for the creation of measures that creatively help to determine the next steps of the project.

The real trick is not to run to or from planning, but to utilize it in a way that advances the cause to a place where people agree on the vision, understand the large steps along the way and understand they have space to be creative.  Of course none of this can happen without mutual trust, both in the leader and from the leader. If the trust doesn’t exist, see Ben’s awesome post on how to handle office politics.

When leaders embrace the planning gray spaces, they can only continue to advance and innovate.

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