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Plans Don’t Matter — Planning Does

The value of planning comes from the process, not the deliverable.

“Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” —Winston Churchill

Like many companies, at OneVision we recently began work on creating next year’s annual operating budget. The process is a slog — time-consuming, difficult, and uncomfortable. We are, after all, attempting to predict the future. Some of these predictions will come true; many of them won’t. If we’re good (and a little lucky), most should end up being somewhere in the ballpark. But this lack of precision doesn’t mean the exercise of making our budget is useless. Far from it. Because like all types of planning, the value of creating a budget lies less in the budget itself and more in the process of creating it.

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The point of planning is to create “total clarity.”

When it comes to planning, we can easily fixate on the wrong goal. We believe the only purpose of planning is to generate the plan itself. We lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal is to arrive at a deep level of mutual understanding — I call it total clarity. The plan itself is nothing more than an artifact. This is a powerful lesson that applies well at any level of the business.

Any time you set out to create a plan — be it a company roadmap, quarterly strategic plan, or a detailed scope of work statement, the process forces clarity. Most importantly, planning uncovers what I refer to as “areas of tension” across the team. Divergent opinions surface. Arguments get hammered out. Assumptions are identified and scrutinized. Tough questions arise. Some get answered right away. Some get flagged for more digging. As a group, you never agree on everything, but at least the disagreements are laid bare. In the end, you align and move forward, confident that the team has a firm grip on precisely what you’re out to accomplish.

The plan itself is little more than a few kilobytes on a drive somewhere. The total clarity undergirding this plan… now that’s gold.

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Stop trying to create the perfect plan.

It is tempting to gauge the success of your planning efforts on the quality of the final deliverable. Did we write a clear and comprehensive document? Did we make some pretty charts? Does the deliverable capture the vision?

Watch out for the law of diminishing returns here. Creating the perfect plan is impossible — attempting it is a waste of time, and even thinking about it is enough to paralyze most teams.

Remember that the goal is not a pretty document, it is total clarity. And with this goal in mind, you recognize how to right-size your process — If a sharpie and the cardboard flap from an amplifier box are enough to get you aligned, then call it a plan and keep moving.

The process of planning is daunting, which deters many companies from even trying. A change of framing can help here. When you begin to see that the value of planning comes from the process, and not the deliverable, you can more easily give yourself permission to struggle with it. You have the right to be wrong. To admit that you’re uncertain. To make a mess on the page. To argue, haggle, and disagree. And even to fail in the attempt. Because ultimately, no matter where you end up, you’re guaranteed to have a clearer understanding of the problem than you did when you started.

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