The plan is nothing…
I started coaching cross-country ski athletes a couple of months ago and noticed some elements in coaching were very similar to what I experienced in my career. Every time I was setting out a plan, a journey, or a product roadmap at work, it always looked so clear, defined and reachable on paper when I was setting it out. All that was left for me to do was meticulously follow the plan, as I tried in coaching as well. Simple, right?
If you’ve heard of Dwight Eisenhower’s famous quote, “planning is everything, the plan is nothing.” Then you definitely would know that a plan is not enough! But what did Dwight mean? Well I for sure didn’t know up until recently.
My work experience showed me that reality when it came to following a project plan was quite different to the plan; when I looked at the path I followed for my projects, it actually appeared more like I was following a tricky track in a deep jungle with monsters ready to jump on me at every corner! As soon as I started putting my plans in action, they were rendered useless almost right after I started.
The initial project plan was still valuable though, to define what my goals and the desired outcomes for the products were, and also to foresee what risks could occur and aim to mitigate them as early as possible. And that’s precisely the important part of the original plan – that the destination be clear. It was crucial to understand the reason why I started a project in the first place, why I was on this journey, and what my destination was.
The same was true while coaching athletes. The athletes wanted training programs they could follow to become “better” in cross-country skiing (that is, more competitive) or more healthy in general. After questioning a few of them, I noticed a few had already tried to follow plans in the past, and their common feedback regarding those plans was that most of them experienced little improvement or even a decrease in their performance or health when they followed it. Some of them also experienced injuries at a higher rate and got sick more often.
When I asked those athletes what their training goals were, what I heard from them was “being healthier, becoming stronger, ski faster”. Their goals were not specific, and they hadn’t incorporated in their training plan one very important key: periodisation and time fixed goals. It is by planning performance gains that athletes are able to accomplish them. In the long run, these athletes will experience a greater training adaptation and get better. Getting better is why you’re training in the first place. Planning was the key to keeping their eyes focused and being flexible, but also anticipating some issues that might arise, like injuries, holidays, bad weather, etc.
I’ve helped a few athletes develop their annual training plans now. We started their training process by sitting down with a calendar and determining which events (races, training camps, etc.) were going to be the focal points of their coming winter season. Then we planned specific dates for achieving specific goals (such as a weight loss, the ability to run a certain distance, some gain in their upper body strength, etc.). Once the target dates were set, I was ready to plan their training. From their goal dates backwards, I was able to assign specific training phases to their program, understand their current strength level, and anticipate the risks.
Following this experience with athletes, I started thinking about how important planning is to the delivery of effective coaching for organisations too.
For organizations, large and small, the planning process provides the information top management needs to make effective decisions. How to allocate their resources to reach their objectives, set goals that challenge everyone in the organization to strive for better performance, and how to manage risks that could prevent success. Even the largest corporations cannot control the economic and competitive environment around them. Planning encourages them to develop “what-if” scenarios, where managers attempt to envision possible risk factors and develop contingency plans to deal with them.
I hope all these examples cleared things for you! And to sum up, simply remember that “the plan is nothing, you see. Planning is everything.”