The 5 Principles to Successful Plans



January 21, 2020

Winston Churchill was famous for his unstinting and seemingly inexhaustible resilience throughout WW2.  He is therefore often seen as the epitome of an individual who never wavered in anything he did. In fact, he was known to regularly change or amend plans as they were developing.  This approach was completely at odds with the culture of the time, which prized a perfect plan based on absolute ‘certainty’ which never changed. Churchill’s style, as counter-intuitive as it seemed at the time, was critical.  It helped to create a more innovative, creative and agile approach.

“The best Leaders are those who arrive at the results of planning without being tied to plans.”
– Winston Churchill 1941

Eighty years later, innovation and creativity in planning have become the norm and it is more or less accepted that the ‘plan’ will have to adapt once it meets reality. Yet some organisations still struggle to understand how to develop a better planning culture.

The solution is to follow some basic principles which create successful outcomes, regardless of the business size, the situation or the market sector.

The Vertical Slice

It is crucial to involve a small number of people from every level of the organisation in the planning process. The input of team members from the top tier all the way to the frontline of gives the plan the acute reality check it needs. Those at the sharp end of delivery have the granular knowledge of what is needed, what won’t work and what clients are saying. This essential viewpoint can sometimes be filtered out by well-meaning middle managers not wanting to pass on bad news.

Creating a small planning team from a vertical slice of your organisation also brings the power of greater diversity of thought – the benefits of which are superbly described in Matthew Syed’s latest book ‘Rebel Ideas’. We are often surrounded by highly talented people, but who have all been recruited to a similar requirement. They are therefore homogenous as a group and all think the same way; becoming forensically clever as individuals, but blind as a group.

The final advantage to the vertical slice is that it generates wider advocates and champions, who own the plan and are wedded to its success.

This is achieved by involving people at all levels of the organisation, even a small number can yield great results.

At Quirk Solutions, we create touchpoints that go much deeper for the organisations we work with, as can be seen in this case study of our client Bel Valves.

Plan A, B and C

We have all heard of having a Plan B, but how many times do we actually create one – and a fully developed one at that?

The military teaches their teams to come up with a solution to the problem, then set that aside and generate a second way to achieve the same outcome but via a completely different pathway. They even seek a third option where possible. They sometimes use three separate planning teams to do this – or a single planning team charged with delivering three alternative solutions. The time spent in this process is considered essential, investigating all the possible angles and data to ensure nothing is missed.

This may seem like a pointless exercise – but it is a way to create more diverse and innovative solutions that stand a greater chance of success. By the end of the planning process, it is rare to choose Plan A, B or C in isolation; instead, the best bits of each are chosen and combined into a more powerful whole.

Delegations and accountability

A common complaint is that teams don’t deliver what they’ve been told to do; the plan is perfect, but it fails due to a lack of accountability. The issue here isn’t accountability, it’s a lack of ownership – genuine ownership. If a team is presented with a top-down, pre-ordained plan, then they have no emotional investment in it.

The solution is to allow each level of the organisation a degree of freedom, to use its own initiative and create its own plans. This ensures that each area of the organisation wants ‘their’ plan to work and will strive to make it a reality. Clearly, the paradox is that this approach can create mayhem – with different teams going off in different directions.

The McDonalds Corporation has a way of addressing this called ‘freedom in a framework’. They allow regional teams the latitude to alter recipes to suit local palates, within a defined set of tolerances.

This keeps the organisation aligned towards its objectives, whilst being incredibly agile at the same time. In this way, each area of the business understands what it is trying to do and why, but all of the individual plans are contributing to an overall direction.

The same methodology can apply to any organisation, no matter what the scale. The trick is in setting the parameters of freedom at the correct level – and choosing which parameters to use

Don’t seek perfection

Working to create the perfect plan – polished, flawless and beautifully presented, is folly. No plan survives contact with reality, it will inevitably be forced to adapt to take into account new developments.

Better then, to get a plan that is 80% fit for purpose and use the remaining available time to test it and see where it is likely to fail and what the unintended consequences might be. There are many ways to test plans – short and highly efficient methods like a ‘Pre-Mortem’ or more nuanced and detailed tests such as a Red/Blue Team 360-degree check. Even something as simple as playing Devil’s Advocate or De Bono’s Thinking Hats will help.

This testing process is essential to all successful plans, as it starts to predict potential outcomes and helps to avoid those that are damaging. All too often, organisations seek to create the perfect plan and then roll it out, hoping that it will work. Everyone knows it won’t, but ‘wilful blindness’ kicks in, leading to the inevitable (expensive) crisis which could have been avoided.

The 1/3 – 2/3 Rule

It is all too easy to become so enamoured with the planning process that we fail to recognise its purpose – getting people to do useful stuff.  We get distracted by the fun of analysing data, assessing options, discussing and debating.

The problem is that this means when we finalise the plan we have run out of time.  It is, therefore, landed on our teams without much prior consultation, giving them no time to understand what, why, when how and who – just do.  This generates frustration and poor delivery, due to misunderstandings and a lack of motivation.

A useful solution to this is the 1/3 -2/3 Rule.  If I have 9 weeks to achieve something, I am only allowed 3 weeks of that time to do all my analysis, thinking, decision making and setting direction.  This leaves my subordinate teams 6 weeks to work out their part and how to deliver that. If they have subordinate teams themselves, then they only take 2 weeks to do their thinking, leaving the lower teams 4 weeks to plan.  In this way, all levels of the organisation have enough time to absorb what they have been given and work out what they are going to do about it.

Clearly, all the above principles mutually reinforce one another: using delegated planning teams helps to address the 1/3-2/3 rule; testing plans helps to explore options A, B and C; the vertical slice helps with accountability and a robust testing process.  So, the principles should be seen more as an integrated framework, which collectively will help deliver greater success.

I recognise that I have, for brevity, skimmed over each of these principles. If you’d like to know more about any or all of them, please feel free to get in touch.

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