Planning Is Everything; It is How Men Walked on the Moon

Author’s Note: For the last several years I have posted about setting goals and teaching people how to set goals as a leader. My current series about the importance of good management happens to include the pillar of planning. Given that the planning process establishes the directions to achieve goals, personal and organizational, it seems like this week is the ideal time to issue this post. For those who have read my blog for a few years, you will recognize familiar content on developing goals and steps for execution. That should come as not surprise. A word about this post’s length…like the post that started this series, planning is a very detailed process. Planning could take several posts to cover in great detail. This post is about twice as long as my goal of 1,000 words. It could easily be longer and perhaps that will be the next series. Leadership is a verb, so after reading this, plan a project for the New Year.

Planning is an important leadership action. While the finished plan may not survive the first step of execution, the process of planning is essential in order to allow others to solve problems with less leadership involvement to improve responsiveness and outcomes.
D. D. Eisenhower, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In war, combat leaders know regardless of how well they plan the battle, the enemy always has a vote about how the battle will be fought. As a result, many people find it easy to ignore planning given the completed plan will not likely be executed as originally envisioned. However, executing without a plan is like going on vacation with no idea where you are going, who is going with you, the mode of transportation you will use, or what activities (laying on the beach is an activity if not an active activity) you want to do. You may end up someplace, somehow, doing something with someone, but it may not be what you wanted. You may plan a cross-country trip by air only to find your flight is canceled because of weather but because you have a basic plan, you can adjust it and still arrive at your destination. Plans allow leaders to see the future and develop courses of action for potential eventualities. The process of planning allows leaders to think through ideas and identify potential problems before execution begins which allows the leader the opportunity to develop controls to mitigate those risks and ensure resources are available to take advantage of opportunities; no, to recognize a first that a situation is an opportunity. A good plan includes the following elements:

  • A vision of the finished state or product
  • Thought out task steps to complete the plan
  • Metrics to measure performance and effectiveness
  • Periodic check-ins to assess progress
  • Acquisition of resources
  • Timeline for completion of each step and the total project
  • Ensures people required to complete the work are present, trained and have the tools necessary to execute their work.

The Vision

Vision is one of those things that separates leaders from managers. Leaders see the future. They identify the difference between what is and what could be. They possess the ability to communicate their vision with others in a way that inspires them to complete the work and join the journey. The vision provides people with a specific description of what the end state looks like, provides general measures of success, creates the impression that the vision is attainable, shows how the change is relevant to the organization and others, and the time it will be completed.

In the last year, both SpaceX and Virgin Galactic made large strides to make private space travel a reality. This vision was not something Elon Musk nor Richard Branson embarked on lightly. Each developed a vision just after the turn of the century to reach for the moon and the stars. Each has experienced progress and also set backs. Elon Musk admitted he missed his 2018 goal to send a private mission to the Moon. However, he did not quit. Rather he adjusted his plan and pressed forward after evaluating the lessons he and his team learned along the way. His updated plan is to send a private mission to the moon in 2023.

Creating a vision allows the whole organization to see where it is going and to engage in behaviors to move closer to the end. Establishing that vision is one task a leader cannot delegate.
Photo from pxhere.com – CC0 license

Both Branson and Musk understand an important vision principal. Like a bucket of water, it needs to be refilled from time-to-time or it will evaporate. The more people who understand the vision the more help the leader has to help keep the bucket full. People like Beth Moses and Michael Colglazier share Branson’s vision of private space tourism and travel. While selling your vision is important, often you make more progress with the support of others. People like to hear the music of the band rather than a continuous solo concert.

Task Steps

As with any journey, one needs directions. Task steps are a set of directions to complete the plan. They are the leader’s best guess of what needs to be done to complete the task. Not all task steps are created equal. The first few task steps provide details later task steps lack. The reason is that the organization, situation, and people change during the history of the project. As a result the later task step details may need to change to meeting the current operating environment.

Ensure the details of the task steps provide the doers with the details they need to provide completed products to continue the project. However, do not provide so much detail in how to do something that you strangle the creativity of those doing the work. Many times people will provide a superior product given a little direction and a firm understanding of the overall vision. The leader needs to provide the vision and a few details and let the experts do the work.

Metrics

In this step, the leader specifies measurements of performance and effectiveness. Performance measurements measure how well the team is sticking to processes identified in the task steps. It does not matter if the process is developed at the team level or higher. Measuring performance is important because it allows leaders to know whether successes and failures in the effectiveness measurement are because the plan was not right, or if it was because of how well people followed the process.

Developing performance measures are easy. They provide answer to questions like,

  • How many widgets were produced?
  • How long does it take to type three pages of text?
  • How much did it cost to complete a task step with that process?

Effectiveness measurements are harder to develop. Measures of effectiveness tell the story about how well the plan is solving the problem and meeting the vision. Effectiveness is a strategic issue. Effectiveness measures tell leaders if they are creating the actual change the intended and creating the future they envisioned at the start of the planning process. These metrics are generally developed at the leadership level.

Effectiveness measures require leaders to have that clear vision of the future. They tell the story of that progress. Effectiveness measures provide answers to questions like,

  • As a result of this plan how are people’s lives better?
  • Has this plan resulted in an improved working environment?
  • Are the parts of the plan creating a product that looks like what the leader envisioned?

To compare and contrast the differences in measures of performance and effectiveness lets look at a real project. In 1501, the Florence Cathedral commissioned Michelangelo to complete a statue of David for their buttress. They hired two artists before Michelangelo but neither had the skill required to finish the statue. Of course Michelangelo did and is credited with creating a true masterpiece during the Renaissance.

If we look at the performance measures, the other artists chips away stone and started to create important features of a person depicted in the sculpture. They were executing the correct processes to make a great figure in stone but not achieving the desired outcomes. Michelangelo understood what was necessary to create the statue desired by the Florence Cathedral. He had developed the skill and ability to carve stone, combined it with his artistic vision and created an object still viewed six centuries later as a masterpiece. That is a measure of effectiveness.

Periodic Reviews

It is important to periodically check progress to insure the plan is moving in the desired direction. Turning back to the David Statue, notice that Michelangelo started with an in-progress work. Those who wanted the statue were not pleased with the progress of others who had been hired to work on the project. They evaluated the situation and adjusted processes by hiring new people to complete the work. Things change over the course of a project. Leaders need to periodically check progress to ensure the project is still relevant, moving along as expecting, and still promises to effectively fulfill the leader’s vision and effectively solve their problem.

Resourcing

Resourcing is an important leadership and management function. While there will be a paper later dedicated to greater details of resourcing, discussing resources while developing a plan is necessary here. If you have read any biography of any great or even good military commander you will notice that they rarely worry about whether their troops will successfully maneuver to close with and destroy their enemies. Smart military leaders worry about whether they can sustain their soldiers ability to fight by continuing to provide the fuel, water, ammunition, and food to keep men, women, and machines moving. Planning to ensure you have the necessary resources on hand to begin a project and a viable supply chain to account for resupply needs is required for teams to successfully implement the overall plan.

Timelines

Creating timelines for task steps ensures tasks are completed in time to support follow-on actions.
– Photo from pxhere.com CC0

Timelines are necessary to keep people focused. Timelines are not always set in stone and frequently can be changed. However, some projects lose relevance if not completed by a particular time. These are some of the things that need to be evaluated during periodic reviews. Timelines establish goals for completion of required steps. Timelines should be synchronized to ensure parallel tasks are completed as necessary to move on to the next steps.

I was a leader in a military school house. Course managers had checklists to complete tasks by certain times to ensure that instructors were qualified to teach, had resources available, and students in seats for every course. Course managers had to advertise the course in the military education system to ensure they would have students. They trained instructors to ensure they were qualified to teach others. They ordered educational material, meals, and housing based on the projected student body. If the course manager missed a step, the school would have problems executing the course to military standards and waste food, money, time, and other resources. Having a time based checklist ensured course managers succeeded.

People

All but the smallest of organizations have some sort of human resource program. If people are resources, why not cover this topic in the resources section? I have a separate section because people are a special kind of resource. Unlike standardized repair parts for machines, and toner cartridges for printers, people are not standardized. It is not easy to sway Betty and Bill. Leaders need to make sure they have qualified people in place to execute their plan. Sometimes that means outsourcing some work especially if the project is a one-time thing. It is important to ensure you pay your people well for what they do. More than half of people in a recent survey stated they felt they needed to change employers to receive a pay increase because they would not likely receive it from their current employer. Likewise, it is necessary to train your people well. You do not deserve to expect quality results unless you train your people. There is an old saying to the effect, “What happens if we train people and they leave? What happens if we don’t train people and they stay?” Leaders are measured by the number of leaders they make. Train your people and pay them well.

Planning is an important leadership function. It requires thoughtfulness to ensure the organization achieves the leader’s vision. Man did not walk on the moon for the first time just because President Kennedy said he would. Kennedy’s dream of a man walking on the moon before 1970 was his vision, the first step in planning. Leaders at NASA and other organizations put together detailed plans to ensure that men went to the moon, landed, and returned safely. Those leaders took the President’s vision and created task steps and metrics to succeed. They assessed their progress and adjusted course. They acquired necessary resources and developed timelines. Finally they ensured they had well paid, well trained people to build and fly the machines that allowed man to walk on the moon. Little progressed in NASA’s original plan for the first moonshot so it is easy to say they should just wing it. However, it was because of the plan they were able to assess their mistakes, make corrections, and finally allow people to walk on the moon. The plan itself may have little importance in the success of a project but having good people who know how to plan ensures leader visions will be fulfilled.

References

Academia.org (n.d.) Michelangelo’s David, https://www.accademia.org/explore-museum/artworks/michelangelos-david/. Retrieved 12/30/20

Davies, P. Hofrichter, F. Jacobs, J. Roberts, A. & Simon D. (2009). Janson’s basic history of western art. 8th Ed. Pearson Prentice Hill, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Eisenhower, D.D. (n.d.) Dwight D. Eisenhower quotes. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/dwight_d_eisenhower_149111. Retrieved 12/31/29

McFarland, M. (May 2, 2019). Elon Musk sets bold goals. But has he delivered?. https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/02/tech/elon-musk-predictions/index.html. Retrieved 12/28/20

Ryan, L. (December 29, 2020). Unnamed survey. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/posts/lizryan_this-is-a-sad-commentary-but-one-we-all-activity-6749735513466531840-wwVe. Retrieved 12/31/20

Wattles, J (November 6, 2020). Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson wants to be the first ‘space billionaire’ to actually travel to space. https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/06/tech/richard-branson-virgin-galactic-space-scn/index.html. Retrieved 12/28/20

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