how to make a plan – is it the ABCs? or is it the A to Z guide for planning?

There is a lot of talk these days about two related things: plans and scaleability. I think you can explain both in just 3 steps.

3 Steps for Making Plans
Planning isn’t that hard, and planning is extremely difficult. Plans are easy, because it’s as simple as taking a short road trip…maybe even just to the supermarket. We all know how to do that.  Planning is extremely hard, because the difficulty lies in finding the balance between detail and direction, between scaleability and strategy.

For example, consider the map here, with the driving route superimposed on it–from Murfreesboro, TN (where we live now) to Lancaster, CA (where we just moved from). This is the macroscopic view, the “strategic plan,” but you certainly would not use this map if you were to hop in the car and start driving there. At this scale, it does not have enough detail to guide your realtime decisions, the ones you have to make mile-by-mile.  Nor will it help you stay between the white line on the right side of the road and the yellow line(s) on the left side of the road.

Making a simple version of this plan consists of three simple steps, that I like to formulate as questions:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. Where are we now?
  3. What are the waypoints along the way?

You could ask yourself these questions about this particular trip and see how it provides this general overview.  I suggest that this is the A to Z guide for planning, because it identifies Z and A, but it does not provide much detail about B through Y. This is the level at which vision and mission take priority in the development of plans.

3 Steps for Scaleability
Vision and mission are extremely important, but the vision and mission, and the plan–the strategy–developed from the vision, must give tactical guidance to each individual on the team. It must scale–it must be able to provide real-time, detailed guidance on “what exit to take” or “which direction to go” and even “how to stay between the lines on the road.” Let’s illustrate with this last case.

The 3 steps are the same:

  1. Where are we going? We look through the windshield and see the twists and turns of the road ahead.
  2. Where are we now? We constantly evaluate our position relative to the lines on the road, our distance from them.
  3. What are the waypoints? Is there a major bend in the road, because this will drastically affect the steering inputs.

This version of the plan is the ABCs of planning, because A leads directly to B leads directly to C, etc.

The same three steps that outline the process for a continental scale, strategic plan apply precisely to the minute, tactical task of staying between the lines.  In fact, you could start at either the tactical level or the strategic and develop the plan, successively scaling out or in, using the same steps cyclically.  The same steps would help us to focus on an intermediate, objective level, describing how we would take Interstate Highway 40 for x number of miles.

You already know how to do a detailed plan. You do it on a daily basis when you give someone in your building directions to your desk. You already know how to scale a plan from the detailed level to a more general idea, when you give directions to someone about how to find your office building. And as these two statements reveal, you already know how to remove extraneous details from strategic level guidance or add them to tactical instructions.

This process for charting a course is the foundation of understanding, quantifying, and navigating through uncertainty. Without a vision, there is no intrinsic motivation for individuals to keep going–uncertainty causes people to stop moving because they cannot sense the purpose.

Without specific details about how to apply the vision to individual decisions, uncertainty results in paralysis–people stop moving because they cannot apply the grand purpose to their next step, can’t tell which direction to take at the fork in the road.

In the month ahead, we’ll discuss squiggly lines on a graph and when bias might be important, thus applying this leadership process to the specifics of ATOMs.

I think that this planning process applies universally–do you?

Where Do We Go From Here

How do we find our way then, when we are exploring the unknown, blazing a trail into uncharted territory? How do we apply elementary statistical principles to transform uncertainty into decisive action? What is to prevent us from making a preposterous application of ATOMs when we deal with very complex situations, those in which our intuition fails?

This question is not much different from that faced by Chuck Yeager before he ever broke the sound barrier or Neil Armstrong as he took that first step on the moon. Neither of these men, nor anyone around them–with hundreds or thousands of highly educated, very scientific people on these teams–none of these people knew what to expect. Or did they…?

ATOMs is a monthly column that introduces analytical tools of mathematics and statistics and illustrates their application. To read more about ATOMs, you can read Where Do We Go From Here, or view the online workbook here.

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